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Bergen, halfway to Bologna

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At this week’s Bergen Summit, the harmonisation of European higher education as proposed by the Bologna Declaration will be coming under scrutiny. So what came before and what does it mean for the future?

The Bergen summit, which takes place on May 19 and 20, will open a new chapter in the Bologna process which aims to create a standardised European higher education system. The Norwegian town, whose Bryggen wharf is recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site, has been preparing for this meeting for a long time and has hopes of bringing a typically Scandinavian social dimension to the process. This may respond to the putative commercialisation of the process, which, up to this point, has been the main worry of students and other critics of the Bologna process. Kristin Clement, the Norwegian Education Minister, reminds us that “higher education should be considered as public property that citizens are in charge of”. This view manifests itself in national legislation by the promotion of equal access to higher education.

Three points on the agenda

The Bergen summit will bring together 40 European countries which will try to bring the far-reaching reform involved in the Bologna process closer to fruition. During the last meeting of this kind, in Berlin, the process’s monitoring groups outlined three priority points. The first of these deals with the quality of university programmes in calling for greater transparency vis à vis the allocation of responsibilities in institutions, and demands increased clarity in the internal and external methods of evaluation of courses and institutions. The second is concerned with the standardisation of degrees awarded by the signatory countries, aiming to make them comparable and compatible. The final point encourages participating countries to sign the Lisbon Recognition Convention. Drawn up by the Council of Europe and UNESCO, this convention aims at the recognition of relative higher level qualifications in the European region.

One way to create a single educational area

The Bergen summit marks the halfway point of the Bologna process which should be achieved by 2010. The fundamental principles of the reform are laid out in the Magna Charta Universitatum, which was adopted in 1988, during the celebration ceremonies marking the 900th anniversary of the founding of the University of Bologna. Ten years later, the Sorbonne declaration was signed by the French, Italian, German and British ministers in charge of higher education. These agreements acted as the foundations for the construction of a harmonised European higher education area. The Bologna declaration, signed by 29 countries on June 19 1999, outlines six goals: comparable and readable qualifications; a system organised around two cycles (Bachelors and Masters); transferable credits; increased mobility; cooperation to assure quality teaching, and higher education with a European dimension. In 2001, a meeting of 33 ministers of education in Prague produced three further goals. These were: lifelong learning; the involvement of students, and the competitiveness of the European education system in a world education market. The 2003 ministerial summit in Berlin proposed a further goal which consisted of the establishment of doctoral study and the training of young researchers as the third cycle of higher education. The process was also enlarged to include 40 countries. The report produced by the Berlin summit leaves the possibility of participation in the European higher educational area open to countries part of the European Cultural Convention, if they agree to seek to implement the goals of the Convention of Bologna in their national systems.

What else?

Bologna opens the way to the harmonisation of European systems of higher education; nobody can deny that presently diversity is the operative word in this area. A standardised system would allow the building of a Europe of knowledge, the creation of a society of inquiry. It would open the doors of European universities to students wishing to spend a semester outside the walls of their university and beyond the borders of their country. The new Erasmus Mundus programme, which is considered a far-reaching initiative, plans, amongst other things, to open this type of mobility up to Masters students.

All of these are laudable ideas, but money is needed to see that these proposed reforms become reality. Evidently, the delicate question of grants and subsidies dims the hopes of those that saw harmonisation as a panacea for current problems. In recent times, many students from Eastern Europe have had the opportunity to participate in inter-university exchange programmes, but have not had the means to do so. It is true that even if the new system facilitates this type of programme, it is important to ensure that enthusiasm for harmonisation does not drive us to forget the drawbacks of the reform.

Translated from Bergen : le processus de Bologne au milieu du chemin