EUA on Bologna Process and university modernisation

The Bologna Process has delivered some concrete results, but quite a lot of work is still needed to make sure that the structures work properly, according to Lesley Wilson of the European University Association.

Click here to read a shortened version of the interview.

 

The aim of the Bologna Process, launched in 1999, is to establish a European higher-education area by 2010. The objective is not to harmonise national education systems but rather to provide tools to connect them. The process is not limited to the EU and has, so far, 45 signatory countries. It is managed by bi-annual ministerial conferences, the next one taking place in London in May 2007. 

“As we’re approaching 2010, the London conference will be important to take stock of how far we’ve got in reaching our goals,” explains Lesley Wilson, the secretary-general of the European University Associaiton (EUA). In this interview with euractiv.com, she offers an overview of the state of play of the Bologna Process and explains what universities think of the Commission’s calls for modernisation. 

What are the results of the Bologna Process so far and will the objective of creating a European higher education area by 2010 be reached? 

One of the main objectives of the process has been the creation of a three-cycle (bachelor, master and PhD) higher-education system across Europe. EUA’s trends analysis shows that four years ago roughly 50% of institutions were implementing this system and now more than 80% of universities are implementing it. That is a major change. The overall goal of changing the whole European higher- education system is therefore being reached. 

In addition, more than 70% of universities are using the European credit-transfer system, which is also quite a high percentage. The system was created for the Erasmus programme for student mobility across countries – but with the Bologna Process it has become a means to transfer credits within countries as well. 

There has been huge development but it does not mean that there are no problems. Dealing with the credit-transfer systems properly is still quite a challenge. Students still say that they sometimes face problems having their credits recognised. Everybody agrees that the structures and the basic tools are there, but quite a lot of work is still needed in making sure that they work properly. This is a long process, as you can’t change universities overnight. 

Are there differences between the participating countries?

When the Bologna Process was launched in 1999, universities had different starting points as some already had the three-cycle system – so they naturally face different challenges. Some countries changed at once, others have been doing it bit by bit, which makes a difference as well. Furthermore, for example the Western Balkans, which joined the process later, cannot be at the same stage of development as those which were part of the process since the beginning.

Government support also plays a role. Some governments have provided specific funds to support the implementation of changes whereas in other countries there has been very little support -this means that the process takes longer as the university staff need to do everything themselves.

What will be the main issues under discussion in the next bi-annual ministerial conference in London? 

One of the major goals of the Bologna Process since the beginning has been to make European higher-education quality better. This is the reason behind the structural changes and the credit system. One of the main issues under discussion in London will be the creation of a European register for quality agencies. Two years ago, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and EUA were asked to draft a report on how to implement such a register. We are currently debating the issue in view of the London conference and hope to reach an agreement on the establishment of this register in that conference. 

How do calls for modernising European universities fit the Bologna Process? What do universities think of the Commission’s May 2006 Communication on the modernisation agenda for universities? 

The modernisation agenda is for the EU-27 only. However, the Bologna process as such is also a modernisation agenda, even if it started in a more modest way by looking at the structures. The Commission Communication on modernisation goes much further.

EUA thinks that more autonomy for universities is crucial. It is a question of accountability and linked to quality-assurance as well. We also support the Commission’s call for having 2% of GDP-funding for higher education (the EU average for 2002 was around 1.1%, and 2.6% in the United States – public and private funding together). 

Our view is that there needs to be both public and private funding. In particular, there needs to be strong public funding because the private sector is often willing to give more money, following strong public support. 

What is meant by overcoming the fragmentation of the European university system and, at the same time, diversifying it?

In some university systems there was a tendency to have the power with the different faculties. So it was very difficult for the universities as a whole to have one policy, especially if it was a big university. In order to make the reform and in order to make the changes, a university has to have an identity as an institution and there needs to have a certain authority and power vested in the central part of the university to be able to make important decisions and manage the funds in a transparent way. That has been the direction of many of the reforms that have taken place in Europe. 

The key thing for us with the reform is that universities need to be able to take decisions and develop their own strategies of what they want to be. That means also that what you get in the end is not a fragmentation but a kind of diversification of different types of universities with different missions.

So, you avoid fragmentation by having stronger governance systems of the institutions, but, at the level of the system as a whole, it is important that each institution is able to think through its own mission and do that properly.

What are universities’ priorities for reform? 

Our big issues are autonomy and funding, but not just in terms of more money. One of the problems is that the way the public authorities fund higher education varies across Europe. In addition, the possibilities that the universities have for diversifying their funding vary also. 

So, we want the universities to have the freedom to be able to diversify their funding – meaning that they need to be legally able to do that. Our research shows that diversifying funding is just not possible in some countries. This leads us back to the question of national regulation and financial management. One of the biggest changes would be to give universities a lump sum rather than considering them as part of the state. 

Universities’ message is: ‘Give us the autonomy to manage our own funds and we’ll be accountable for them.’ We obviously need to demonstrate very clearly where we stand, but if we can’t decide ourselves what we use the money on we are never going to be able to change and modernise and develop our own missions. This is one of the issues that we keep on coming back to in different ways. 

Once autonomous, universities might attract more private funding? 

Exactly. 

Would more autonomy help universities play a bigger role in a regional context (cf. regional innovation clusters etc.)? 

Yes. EUA held a conference on this issue in October 2006. And there are a lot of good examples in the new member states of this – we are also very happy with the Commission’s Communication on the guidelines for university-business knowledge transfer (4 April 2007). Knowledge transfer is something that we really try to encourage the universities to think about, especially at a regional level. 

Isn’t the knowledge-transfer also linked to how autonomous universities are?

Yes. Universities need to be able to decide what they do and then be accountable.

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