Bologna: 10 years on

Brett Lucas
Graeme Roberts taught
English at Aberdeen,
becoming Vice-Principal
for Teaching and Learning.
He is now an Academy Senior
Associate, helping Scottish
HEIs to enhance student
employability, and a UK
Bologna Expert,
contributing a chapter
on learning outcomes to
Yes! Go! A Practical Guide
to Designing Degree
Programmes with
Integrated Transnational
(DAAD, 2008).
Bologna: 10 years on

Four years ago the English Subject Centre participated in a joint meeting with the Subject Centres for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies and for History, Classics and Archaeology to discuss the academic implications of the Bologna Process. In March this year, the higher education ministers of the 46 signatory countries met in Vienna and Budapest for the official launch of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and to assess the progress of the Bologna reforms. So what has been achieved since 2006 and what still remains to be done?

The most authoritative answer to these questions is to be found, not in the bland celebratory pronouncements of the official ministerial communiqué, but in the findings of the European University Association (EUA) Trends VI report, which is based on a survey of over 800 universities, feedback from 28 national rectors’ conferences and the results of 27 site visits to institutions in 16 countries. At the time of writing, however, the EUA report is not yet available, so I am basing my answer on the outcome of last year’s ministerial conference in Leuven. This shows that:

are making national systems of higher education across Europe more compatible and comparable, making it easier for students to have their mobility periods recognised and for universities to attract students and scholars from other parts of the world.

Nevertheless, the task of creating the EHEA is by no means complete; full achievement of its objectives will require increased commitment well beyond its launch date in 2010. In particular, action is called for to widen access to higher education, so that the profile of the student body reflects the diversity of Europe’s populations, and the Bologna countries have been asked to set national targets for increasing participation by under-represented groups by 2020. Part of this growth, required if Europe is to cope with a shrinking workforce and an ageing population, is to be achieved through the creation of more flexible learning paths, including part-time and work-based routes and the recognition of prior learning. Last year’s review of progress at Leuven re-asserted the importance of the teaching mission of Europe’s universities, and concluded that more work still needs to be done if the process of curricular reform is to be soundly based on the principle of student-centred learning and the use of learning outcomes.

All this should sound very familiar to those of us who experienced the reforms of UK higher education in the last 20 years and are now living with the consequences.

Although the Bologna reforms are designed to make it easier for academics and employers in one country to understand and recognise learning achieved in another, increasing the mobility of Europe’s students remains the most important, as yet unachieved, goal of the whole project. Mobility is to be the ‘hallmark’ of the EHEA; so the Leuven ministerial conference called upon member countries to take steps not only to increase mobility but to ensure that there is a better balance between incoming and outgoing students and greater participation by under-represented groups. The target for 2020 is for at least 20% of those graduating in the EHEA to have had a period of study or training abroad.

This is a particular challenge for a country like Britain, not just in terms of increasing outgoing student numbers (who currently amount to just over half the number of incoming Erasmus students), but also in terms of their demographic profile. According to a recent HEFCE study of the cohort of UK students who began full-time first degree courses in 2002-03 and graduated within five years, 4% undertook a period of study abroad and 8% a work placement. Most of the former were foreign language students and the vast majority of the latter were studying business, science or engineering. Both groups had different characteristics from their fellows. Study abroad students, for example, were typically female, young and less likely to come from an ethnic minority or from a low participation neighbourhood or to have a declared disability; they were also more likely to be from a higher socio-economic class, have a higher than average entry qualification and be studying at an institution with a high qualification on entry. Not surprisingly, students in both groups graduated with better degrees. Those who had undertaken placements abroad were more likely to be employed six months after graduating, while Erasmus students were more likely to be engaged in further study. Both groups, however, were more likely to have higher than average salaries.

Last year’s ministerial communiqué called for the creation of new opportunities for student mobility in each of the three degree cycles, particularly through joint degrees and the provision of ‘mobility windows’. The recent survey of UK universities by the UUK Europe Unit (due to report in January but, at the time of writing, still to appear) should reveal how much progress there has been in the development of joint degrees with European partners, one of the topics discussed at the meeting of the three Subject Centres in May 2006. Meanwhile, we do know that of the 116 Erasmus Mundus masters courses selected for funding next year by the European Commission, 12 are in the field of languages, philological sciences and humanities but only two of these include a UK partner. 

This year sees the 20th anniversary of the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE), a network comprising most of the Bologna signatory countries and (one might have thought) an ideal forum for promoting Erasmus exchanges involving UK staff and students and for identifying potential partners with whom to create high quality joint masters and doctoral programmes capable of competing for funding under the Erasmus Mundus scheme.

Over the past two years the British Council (which administers the UK Erasmus programme) has organised a series of joint events with the Higher Education Academy on the European Dimension. The UK Bologna Experts team hopes to follow this up by working with a number of Subject Centres to increase awareness among academic staff and encourage them to think about the implications of the Bologna reforms for learning and teaching at subject level, and about how they might give more students the opportunity to enhance their personal development, academic achievements and career prospects through a period of study or training abroad.

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