The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 10, 2005, Friday

Europe's Effort to Standardize Higher Education Now Includes 45
Nations

AISHA LABI

Bergen, Norway

European education ministers meeting here in May admitted five new
participants to the Bologna process, an ambitious program aimed at
harmonizing higher-education systems across Europe.

That action means that 45 nations are now committed to the creation
of the European Higher Education Area -- a region of shared academic
standards, in which universities play a central role in promoting
Europe's culture and development. The newest members are Armenia,
Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The conference marked the midpoint of a process that began in 1999,
when 29 nations signed the Bologna Declaration. Its objectives
include the synchronization of degree structures, with a first degree
cycle of three years culminating in a bachelor's degree, and a second
cycle for master's and doctoral degrees. Another goal of the process
is to make it easier for students, professors, and staff members to
move among institutions in different countries.

The participants in the Bologna process include all 25 members of the
European Union, which is trying to become the most competitive
knowledge-driven economy in the world by 2010, as well as European
nations whose economic development is far less advanced.

With such a range of participants, each with its own higher-education
system, the challenges include not just synchronizing degree
programs, but also ensuring adherence to common standards. A key
Bologna objective, singled out by European education ministers at
their last summit, two years ago in Berlin, is quality assurance.

The communique the ministers issued at the end of the Bergen
conference noted that "almost all countries have made provision for a
quality-assurance system." However, it said, "there is still progress
to be made, in particular as regards student involvement and
international cooperation."

The mention of student involvement highlights one significant change
that has taken place since the Bologna process began: Each national
delegation to Bergen included a student representative. Vanja
Ivosevic, the chairwoman of the National Unions of Students in
Europe, addressed the conference. Students represent the largest
group in higher education, Ms. Ivosevic pointed out, but when the
Bologna process was inaugurated their representatives had to sneak
into the meeting.

Americans Are Watching

Ms. Ivosevic's organization has conducted its own analysis of the
Bologna process and is critical of some of its effects, including
what the student organization claims is a lack of flexibility in
terms of student access to graduate studies. But despite a couple of
dozen demonstrators who protested outside the conference with
placards calling for free education for all, Ms. Ivosevic said most
students are satisfied with the direction of the Bologna process.

Students were particularly pleased, she said, that the ministers in
their communique had emphasized the need for students to complete
their studies "without obstacles related to their social or economic
background."

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, was one
of three U.S.-based educators who attended the conference here. There
is growing awareness in the United States of the Bologna process and
its accompanying reforms, he said, driven by a practical need to
learn how to assess the new three-year undergraduate-degree
transcripts. Mr. Ward said that what interests him most about the
European undertaking is the way its architects have focused on the
social dimensions of higher education.

"The idea that while they're going through all these changes to make
themselves more competitive, they want to improve access and at the
same time make it available to underrepresented groups -- this has
been the crisis in the United States for the past 30 years and we
still haven't solved it," he said. "It's important that Americans
recognize that Europeans collectively are addressing the right
issues."

The Bologna reforms will make it easier for students to move among
institutions within Europe, and will also make Europe more attractive
to students from outside the region, said Debra W. Stewart, president
of the U.S.-based Council of Graduate Schools. International students
have always had opportunities in Europe, but the inability to move
easily across borders, especially at the doctoral level, has been a
barrier, she said. Now, the elimination of that barrier will have
direct consequences for American universities.

Her organization found that international applications to American
graduate programs declined 28 percent last year, and are expected to
fall another 5 percent below that figure this year. "It would be a
terrible mistake to assume that was all a 9/11 effect," she said. It
would have happened anyway, she noted, "because the world, for all
the right reasons, is becoming more competitive."

The Bologna participants are planning the kinds of changes that make
universities attractive, Ms. Stewart said. "If they do these things
they will be a very formidable competitor, and that's good.
Competition is good. We should only attract the best students in the
United States if we're providing the best opportunities for them."