On 25 May 1998, the Ministers in charge of higher education in France, Germany, Italy and the UK signed the Sorbonne declaration on harmonisation of the architecture of the European higher education system, a document preceding the Bologna declaration.
The Bologna process was launched after 29 Education Ministers signed a Declaration in Bologna in June 1999 to reform the structures of their higher education systems. Each signatory country committed itself to reform its own higher education system in order to create overall convergence at European level.
The process originates from the recognition that in spite of their valuable differences, European higher education systems are facing common internal and external challenges related to the growth and diversification of higher education, the employability of graduates, the shortage of skills in key areas or the expansion of private and transnational education.
The Bologna process has grown from 29 countries in 1999 to 46 in 2007. Current members include all EU member states (Belgium includes Flanders & French Community), Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Holy See, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, FYROM, Russia, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine.
The process is steered by bi-annual Bologna ministerial conferences, which take stock of the progress done since 1999 and set priorities for the following years.
According to the Bologna Declaration, the following objectives have to be attained by 2010 in order to establish the European area of higher education and to promote the European system of higher education world-wide:
Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, also through the implementation of the Diploma Supplement;
Adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate: Access to the second cycle shall require successful completion of first cycle studies, lasting a minimum of three years. The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The second cycle should lead to the master and/or doctorate degree;
Establishment of a system of credits - such as in the ECTS system - as a proper means of promoting the most widespread student mobility. Credits could also be acquired in non-higher education contexts, including lifelong learning, provided they are recognised by the receiving universities concerned;
Promotion of mobility by overcoming obstacles to the effective exercise of free movement. Students should get easier access to study and training opportunities outside their home country. Teachers, researchers and administrative staff should get recognition and valorisation of periods spent in a European context researching, teaching and training, without prejudicing their statutory rights;
Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies;
Promotion of the necessary European dimensions in higher education, particularly with regards to curricular development, inter-institutional co-operation, mobility schemes and integrated programmes of study, training and research.
In 2001, the education ministers met in Prague to sign the Prague declaration which added three key themes to the Bologna Process:
- lifelong learning;
- involvement of students;
- attractiveness and competitiveness of the European Higher Education Area to other parts of the world.
During their summit meeting in Berlin in 2003, the education ministers agreed to:
- set a 2005 deadline for promoting effective quality assurance systems, adopting a system essentially based on two main cycles (bachelor-master) and improving the recognition system of degrees and periods of studies;
- secure closer links between the European higher education area and the European research area by to including the doctoral level as the third cycle in the Bologna Process;
- reaffirm that higher education is a public good and a public responsibility and that the social dimension of the Bologna Process is important;
- take the necessary steps to enable the portability of national loans and grants; stress the involvement of university and student organisations.
At the Bergen summit in 2005 (see EURACTIV 24/05/2005), ministers said that, by the time of the London summit in 2007, they would be looking for progress in:
- implementation of the standards and guidelines for quality assurance as proposed in the European Association for Quality Assurance (ENQA) report;
- implementation of the national frameworks for qualifications;
- the awarding and recognition of joint degrees, including at the doctorate level;
- creating opportunities for flexible learning paths in higher education, including
procedures for the recognition of prior learning.
In the London ministerial conference in 2007 (see EURACTIV 21/05/2007) the education ministers adopted a Communiqué, which:
- sets the ground for the establishment of a Register of European Quality Assurance Agencies, [a public register of agencies reviewing quality of education in higher education institutions] to enhance confidence in European higher education and to facilitate the mutual recognition of quality assurance, and;
- adopts a strategy for the external dimension of the Bologna process (European Higher Education Area in a Global Setting), to improve information on, and to promote the attractiveness and competitiveness of the EHEA.
In the London ministerial meeting in May 2007 Education Commissioner Ján Figel’ urged the need for more action to modernise higher education in Europe. "Governments should give institutions more autonomy. Universities should modernise the content of their curricula, create virtual campuses, reform their governance and professionalise their management of human resources, investment and administrative procedures, diversify their funding and open up to new types of learners, business and society at large," he said.
The European University Association asked the education ministers for greater autonomy and increased funding for universities "in order to enable Europe to compete with the rest of the world". The EUA declaration entitled Europe’s Universities beyond 2010: Diversity with a common purpose urges the need for more autonomy as "more autonomy would give universities more flexibility to adapt to our changing society and would boost university-business knowledge transfer and attract more private funding for universities."
"If we can't decide who to employ, and what to spend our money on, we are never going to be able to change," said says EUA secretary general Lesley Wilson.
"Raising the employability of graduates is a key issue for improving the functioning of European labour markets," states BusinessEurope. "The evolution towards process-oriented and interdisciplinary work organisation increasingly requires employees to be adaptable, to develop problem solving skills and to work in teams. Graduates’ employability thus has to become a key mission for universities and other higher education institutions. This has to be reflected to a greater extent in the design of study courses and become a main criterion of quality for future degrees."
The National Unions of Students (ESIB) published, ahead of the 2007 ministerial conference a study entitled Bologna With Student Eyes. The report analyses how the commitments made in the Bologna Process are implemented in practice at national level. It accuses European governments of "picking those commitments which fit their national agenda, and neglecting others at the same time". For example, "only few take really care about the social situation of students in their country, although the Social Dimension has been marked as a priority of the Bologna Process for two years," said ESIB Chairperson Koen Geven warning that "this à la carte approach endangers Bologna's success".
According to ESIB, the social dimension should be at the heart of the Bologna Process, which involves questions linked to equity in access as well as equal chances of completion of studies.
In the creation of the European higher education area, EURASHE - European Association of Institutions in Higher Education sees as immediate priorities:
- The creation of networking structures and mechanisms between Professional Higher Education Institutions, Universities and other higher education institutions.
- The further improvement and enlargement of cooperation with stakeholders, especially students and business and industry.