Education ministers want PhD programmes more in tune with job market requirements

European education ministers meeting at the Bergen summit urged universities to ensure that their PhD programmes are in tune with the job market. They also want a report on the core principles of PhD programmes.

European education ministers meeting at the Bergen summit on 19-20 May urged universities to ensure that their PhD programmes promote interdisciplinary training and the development of transferable skills, thus meeting the needs of the wider employment market. Ministers said they wanted more PhD students taking up research careers within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Currently the fear is that too many are being drawn away to the US.

They also undertook to ensure that higher education institutions have the necessary autonomy to implement the agreed reforms and recognised the need for sustainable funding of institutions. In this context they upheld the principle of public responsibility for higher education.

By the time of the London summit in 2007, ministers said 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.

The idea behind the recognition of prior learning is to make it easier for students to move from one cycle to the next. Ministers agreed to work towards more recognition of non-formal and formal learning for access to, and as elements in, higher education programmes. Non-formal learning refers to structured learning outside an education or training system that does not lead to certification. Informal learning is unstructured, non-certified and results from daily life activities be they at the workplace, in the family or during leisure time.

Degree system

Ministers adopted the overarching framework for qualifications in the EHEA, comprising three cycles (including, within national contexts, the possibility of intermediate qualifications), generic descriptors for each cycle based on learning outcomes and competences, and credit ranges in the first and second cycles.

“Up until now, courses set out which topics students are required to cover. The idea is for the generic descriptors to describe what skills the students will have learnt during their courses,” said Mr Per Nyborg, head of the Secretariat of the Bologna Follow-up Group. “The underlying purpose is to enable students to be more employable when they leave the world of academia.”

Quality assurance

Ministers welcomed the principle of a European register of quality assurance agencies based on national review. The idea of a new committee to oversee the European Register for Quality Assurance Agencies is being considered. However the sticking point is that there is no supranational decision-making body in overall charge of the Bologna Process.  

“Member states have the ultimate say on Bologna Process, which in reality are non-binding recommendations to the participating countries. So a new committee would have to be set up outside the Bologna Process,” said Mr Nyborg. “ENQA and the other organisations behind the proposal should look for legal advice on this issue.”

Mutual recognition of degrees

Ministers called on all national authorities and other stakeholders to recognise joint degrees awarded in two or more countries in the EHEA.

Education and Culture Commissioner Ján Figel says profound reforms are needed to face the challenges of not enough EU citizens going into tertiary education, insufficient access to higher education and poor research performance. He pointed to two recent surveys emphasising research that found only a handful of European universities in the top 50 in the world.

He has high expectations of the European Qualifications Framework, which he believes will provide commonly understood reference levels on how to describe learning, from basic skills up to the doctorate, with an ECTS-like credit range attached to each level (in the Bergen communiqué, education ministers say that they see the development of national and European frameworks for qualifications as an opportunity to further embed lifelong learning in higher education).

He calls for a new kind of partnership between the state and universities with focus on:

  • achieving world-class quality European universities
  • striking the right balance between the autonomy, responsibility and self-governance of universities and strategic guidance from universities
  • finding a stable and medium-term funding framework including a creative mix of public and private funding

Commissioner Figel has agreed with Science and Research Commissioner Potocnik on the need to relaunch the idea of a European Doctorate Label for PhD programmes with a European dimension.

European University Association (EUA) President Professor Georg Winckler welcomed the recognition in the Bergen communiqué of the central role of institutions and confirmed that Europe's universities are commited to the Bologna reforms and accept their responsibility in driving forward the process, now that the legislative framework is largely in place across Europe. He underlined that this reflects an important shift in responsibility from national government to institutions that EUA identified in the report Trends IV: European Universities Implementing Bologna. 

Professor Winckler told education ministers at Bergen: "We need universities that are able to move out from the shadows of nation states and are able to do both: go for excellence in research as well as in teaching and provide broad, equitable access to basic higher education in Europe."

He also pointed out that, for universities, implementing the Bologna reforms and meeting the research and innovation goals of the Lisbon Agenda are inextricably linked in ensuring that universities realise their potential as key actors in shaping Europe's knowledge societies, saying that "Europe needs strong universities, in the broadest sense, as 'motors' in the knowledge triangle of education, research and innovation".

The EUA represents more than 750 higher education institutions and national rectors' conferences in 45 countries across Europe.

The Bergen summit on 19-20 May brought together European education ministers and the Commission as well as consultative members to the Bologna Process to assess progress following the last summit in Berlin and set the priorities for the next two years.

The Education International (EI) Pan-European Structure [a co-operation of university teachers and staff], the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations (UNICE) are new consultative members of the process. They join the existing members the European University Association, the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE), the Council of Europe and UNESCO/CEPES.

After the last meeting in Berlin in 2003, the focus was placed on quality assurance, the two-cycle system (Bachelors, Masters) and the recognition of degrees and periods of studies.

In the Bergen communiqué, ministers noted that more than half of students are enrolled in the two-cycle degree system in most countries but that there were still some obstacles to access between cycles.

Although observing that almost all countries had made provision for a quality assurance system based on agreed criteria, they singled out student involvement and international cooperation as areas for further progress.

Thirty six out of the 45 Bologna Process countries have ratified the Lisbon Recognition Convention on the recognition of degrees and study periods. Ministers called on the nine countries that have not ratified to do so without delay.

Five new countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - were signed up to the Bologna Process at Bergen, making a total of 45 participating countries.

ENQA will develop the practical aspects of a European register of quality assurance agencies alongside the EUA, EURASHE and ESIB.

The EUA will produce a report on the basic principles of doctoral programmes by the time of the London summit in 2007.

In June, the Commission will start a broad consultation on the future scenario for a European Qualifications Framework with credits for lifelong learning.

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