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You'll see mention of the Bologna Process cropping up in a number of our European uni write-ups; it matters to you for all kinds of reasons if you want to study in one of the 47 countries that have now signed up to it. Simon Sweeney's explanation of this fairly complicated new educational development is the clearest and most succinct we've seen.

The Bologna Process: what’s it all about and why does it matter?

Serious menThe Bologna Process was launched in 1999 by the Education Ministers of 29 European countries in an attempt to bring coherence to higher education systems across the continent. 

The Bologna Declaration followed an initiative of the Council of Europe which adopted the Lisbon Recognition Convention on university qualifications. After 1999 it was taken up by the European Union when the Union had only 15 member states, compared with 27 in 2011.

Throughout this time the number of states signed up to Bologna has grown to 47. So it extends far beyond the current EU borders.

What is the Bologna Process?

It set out in 1999 to establish the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010, which was launched on schedule in March of that year.

What’s that?

The EHEA is a framework to allow easy comparison between the higher education systems of all participating countries.

It comprises agreement on qualification frameworks, including the three cycle system of Bachelor degree, Master and Doctoral studies.

It also covers quality assurance, so that students, graduates, universities and all other stakeholders can be confident in the quality of different systems and the work of different providers.

What’s the connection between Bologna and Erasmus?

The Erasmus programme is a European Union initiative to encourage student mobility, doing part of one’s degree abroad and getting credits for that. These credits should contribute to the final award.

So does Bologna like students to be mobile?

Yes it does, very much. A mobility experience adds value to a degree and contributes hugely to the learning experience.

Around 90% of UK students who take an Erasmus semester abroad rate it as ‘excellent’.

Bologna promotes study in Europe because it’s fundamentally a European initiative, but the Bologna ethos approves of any kind of mobility, long, short, in Europe or elsewhere.

The difference is that Erasmus, now part of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme, provides financial support to students who are mobile in Europe. 

There’s also the Erasmus Mundus programme which supports mobility worldwide at master level.

The best kind of mobility would arguably be to do an entire degree abroad with an Erasmus Exchange to another country included. 

So Bologna welcomes foreign language study?

Yes, definitely. It’s possible to get an Erasmus study abroad grant without a foreign language component, and of course UK students can sign up for courses taught in English, but it’s hoped that most would at least follow a foreign language course as part of their study abroad experience.

Remember that knowing a foreign language not only enhances your employment prospects, but it can change your life. It certainly brings enormous cultural benefits. Never underestimate the benefits of another language, and it’s much easier to learn if you’re living abroad.

What are the most important features of Bologna?

Arguably these are the Three Cycle system and the Qualification Framework of the EHEA; Quality Assurance; credit transfer and mobility; and the Diploma Supplement. There’s also a commitment to research and research collaboration at Doctoral Level.

I’ve heard about the Diploma Supplement. What’s that?

This is a transcript of your degree experience. It says exactly what you studied, the marks, and the credits you received. It has a strict format and all universities in the EHEA should release this free of charge.

In the UK it will be included in the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) which all graduates should get with their degree certificate. Wherever you are, if you don’t get it, ask why not.

What does Bologna say about credits?

Bologna uses the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) with credits for individual modules at specific levels, depending on the year of study, first, second, third, etc. The total number of credits for a Bachelor degree is usually somewhere around 180-240 ECTS.

In the UK 180 ECTS is the equivalent of 360 UK credits. It’s a little bit annoying, but UK credits use bigger numbers on a 2:1 ratio.

So a UK masters is typically 180 UK credits, which equates to 90 ECTS at Master level.

Credits should be awarded for successfully completing module assessment. The assessment should be related to meeting specified and publicly available learning outcomes.

You said students should get credits if they do some (or presumably all) of their studies abroad?

Yes. Bologna stipulates that you should get credits for any validated course of study and this should feed into your home (or base) university study programme, so the period spent away from your base university is recognised as contributing to your final award.

Why does Bologna matter?

Bologna is fundamentally about mutual recognition of qualifications released by universities in different countries. This is important in a global economy.

It is also about quality assurance. Everyone needs to know that a qualification is a valid and reliable indicator of learning and achievement.

Bologna is all about transparency. If universities apply the spirit of Bologna, they will be transparent in all they do, and in the systems they use to monitor and control their activities.

What about the global dimension? Isn’t Bologna just a European thing?

No, it attracts a lot of interest in other countries including the USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Japan and China. Bologna has successfully promoted recognition and transparency which is seen as a positive development.

Universities everywhere are adopting credit based systems and many use the three cycle system as a basic qualification framework. Wherever you plan to study, ask how the university articulates with the Bologna Process.

Has Bologna meant a lot of adaptation in different countries?

Yes, it has. There has been less need for change in the UK than elsewhere because we already had a three cycle system and quality assurance mechanisms. We’ve been linking credits to learning outcomes for a long time.

But in some countries, especially where degrees tended to last longer and arguably bring higher level qualifications than the classic three year Bachelors, such as Spain, Germany or Finland, there’s been a massive adjustment to establish the three cycle framework.

In the UK, we shouldn’t be complacent as adherence to the three cycles is not absolute.

What are the benefits and risks in the Bologna Process?

I think Bologna brings huge benefits. The risks are that the process is misunderstood as a straightjacket. It should not be interpreted as a standardisation of university education. Bologna welcomes institutional autonomy.

I think it is more accurate to see Bologna as requiring transparency, and for systems to be clear and student-focused.

It’s right that students know exactly what they’re signing up to, that they can see learning outcomes and credits linked to particular courses, that they get a transcript at the end stating what they studied and how they performed.

It’s also important to show that procedures for access to higher level courses are similar across university systems. In other words you need to do a Bachelor degree before you begin a Master degree, and complete that before starting a Doctorate.

The risks are that individual universities play fast and loose with these frameworks and offer courses that undermine the spirit and the letter of Bologna.

These are words the university should use routinely. If they don’t, they’re not doing their job properly.

Can you sum up in one sentence what I should take away from this?

Okay. Bologna supports openness, transparency, mutual recognition, quality assurance and clear adherence to credits based on meeting learning outcomes, and it helps universities to prepare graduates for work in an increasingly competitive and globalised environment.

What sort of specific challenges are you referring to?

  • Entry to Master level should happen only after completing a Bachelor degree. 
  • Students should not pass from a good Bachelor degree straight to Doctoral studies. 
  • Universities should not offer Bachelor degrees of less than three years.  
  • Credits should be given for study abroad. 
  • Students should get a minimum number of credits at each level before passing to the next one, and they should have the right number of credits to graduate. 
  • We should also be aware that the typical UK one year Master degree can look short by international comparison.

It sounds a bit technical. I wanted it to be simple!

If you think about it, it’s not that complicated. Your university should be able to answer your questions about credits, quality assurance, recognition and transparency.

By Simon Sweeney

 Simon Sweeney has been a UK Bologna Expert since 2006. He is a lecturer in the York Management School at the University of York, teaching International Political Economy and Business.

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