When I began blogging back in 2012, English higher education appeared keener to jet off to China, India and exotic locations across the globe to recruit high fee-paying students than build links with Europe. But Brexit is making UK universities look closer to home to stay international – and perhaps the often-overlooked Bologna Process might help

European academic and ministerial leaders from Ireland and the United Kingdom in the west to Russia and Kazakhstan in the east are due to meet online from 19 November, 2020, to propel what is known as the Bologna Process into its third decade.

Now involving 48 European countries and relevant organisations such as the European University Association, Council of Europe, UNESCO and the European Students’ Union, the Bologna Process was launched during the 1998-99 academic year as a voluntary partnership with the aim of raising the quality and recognition of European universities and bringing coherence and harmony to higher education systems across the continent.

Back in May 2012, one of my first blogs, headlined ‘Nice idea… but is Bologna a distant land? suggested if there wasn’t a conspiracy of silence, there was certainly a lack of interest among British higher education leaders in closer involvement with European projects like the Bologna Process.

And I wasn’t alone in wondering why! Back then Peter Scott even claimed in The Guardian that with one or two honourable exceptions, the English higher education policy class – ministers (both main parties), civil servants, quangocrats, vice-chancellors – were ‘Eurosceptic to the core’.

Panic at EU referendum

That was – until it was too late – and higher education along with much of the UK establishment, including Universities UK, went into panic-mode at the prospect of an ‘in or out’ EU referendum proposed by the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

The 2016 UK-EU referendum saw a majority voting in favour of leaving the European Union, which so few Brits seemed to love, and we are about to find out what the divorce will really mean as the transitional period for departure comes an end on December 31, 2020.

But whatever happens, whether some sort of make-shift deal is cobbled together to build future UK-EU relations on, or not, the Bologna Process could suddenly become a useful tool for those in British higher education who now want to build stronger links with our ‘friends and neighbours’ throughout Europe.

More to Europe than the EU

And Europe doesn’t necessarily have to begin and end with the European Union, even though many academics hope the UK can find a way to remain associated with the EU’s flagship Erasmus+ mobility scheme and its Horizon Europe research programme.

That was certainly one of the key takeaways from a timely ‘warm-up’ webinar looking towards the Bologna ministerial online meeting being hosted by Italy, which you can find on YouTube.

The webinar under the theme of Closing the gap: the Bologna Process at higher education institutions was co-organised by the European University Association (EUA), the Flemish Vlaamse Interuniversitaire Raad in Belgium and Universities UK International.

As European education ministers gather online for the 2020 Bologna Process conference, I look at why the European Higher Education Area is vital for keeping UK universities international
EUA webinar: Ella Ritchie, top L, and Peter Lievans from Leuven, Belgium, with Michael Gaebel and Marita Hilliges from Sweden on bottom row

The discussion among fans of the European higher education reform process from Sweden, Belgium, England was moderated by Ella Ritchie from Newcastle University, who looking from the UK’s perspective, said the Bologna Process is now even more important “as it is one of the ways we can remain closely involved in international and European HE and that, of course, leaving the EU doesn’t affect our position in the Bologna Process thankfully.”

She stressed it was important to emphasise “the value that the framework brings to universities” because Bologna often influences national systems of higher education without people even realising the role it is playing.

Michael Gaebel, director of higher education policy at the EUA and a member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, told the webinar that while the original idea was to get everything done by 2010, new goals were then set to achieve targets such as 20% of all European university students spending some time studying abroad through schemes like Erasmus by 2020.

Plenty of unfinished business

So, there is “plenty of unfinished business”, he said.

Take student mobility, for example. Taken across Europe, only 9.4% of higher education learners are engaged with student mobility study periods abroad, according to the latest data.

But, at least a goal was set and the data is being monitored, stressed Michael.

Strength of Bologna Process

The great strength of the Bologna Process is that it is not some kind of bureaucratic monster issuing dictates from above and that its aspirations are set by voluntary agreement across an extraordinary range of countries and systems.

It can seem a bit mysterious at times, but its new goals of increasing access, equity and inclusion appear to be a good fit for post-Covid higher education times despite some critics seeing the drive towards competitiveness as a means to cut costs.

From what I understand, the online Bologna conference hosted by Italy should give a fresh boost to key commitments agreed over the last two decades. These include increased recognition of qualifications from different countries in the Bologna Process, together with the use of peer learning to overcome the patchy implementation of reforms such as the three-study cycle reforms for higher education across Europe (3 years full-time study for an undergraduate degree; 1-2 years for a master’s and 4 years for a PhD). There will also be a renewed focus on deepening the quality assurance processes across different countries in the European Higher Education Area.

And to emphasise the fact that Bologna belongs to greater Europe, and not just EU member states, the rotating Bologna Secretariat will be passed on from Italy, which has played host from 2018 to 2020, to Albania across the Adriatic Sea at the close of the Ministerial Conference.

So, the promised land of a true European Higher Education Area covering the 48 countries now involved has been a long journey over the past 20 years and it may take another decade or more to complete, but to me it seems like a journey worth taking in these fractious and difficult times. And I’m glad the UK is still involved, despite Brexit and all that!

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