The European Students’ Union, or ESU, has warned that the Bologna Process, which seeks to harmonise and reform higher education across the continent, is in danger of becoming obsolete because of uneven implementation and poor follow-up of commitments by many European countries.

The ESU report, Bologna with Student Eyes: Time to meet the expectations from 1999, is based on responses from national union of students’ organisations in 38 countries.

Many of the concerns raised by the student unions were echoed at the recent ministerial conference in Yerevan, Armenia, where the latest Bologna Process Implementation Report accepted that progress across the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, was patchy, as University World News reported on 21 May.

Reality-check by students

The new ESU report describes itself as “a reality-check on what has been agreed upon by national governments within the Bologna Process and what the actual situation is for students”.

Instead of looking at every aspect of the Bologna Process, the ESU report looked at some specific areas: student participation in governance, social dimension, quality assurance, recognition, mobility and internationalisation, structural reforms and financing of higher education.

Elisabeth Gehrke, retiring chair of the ESU.

Elisabeth Gehrke, retiring chair of the ESU.

Key author Elisabeth Gehrke, whose period as chair of the ESU comes to an end this month, said: “It is not reasonable that the Bologna Process has been in place since 1999, yet still basic recognition of degrees and qualifications is not yet a reality.

“There is no doubt that something must be done or in 2020 the Bologna Process will be obsolete at best.

“Considering how fruitful the Process has been on the whole, despite its current challenges, it would be a shame to lose what has been a successful tool for reforming our education systems.”

The main obstacle for reaching the goals of the EHEA highlighted by the national student unions is “the lack of a minimum level of implementation of the Bologna reforms”.

The lack of automatic recognition of degrees and qualifications in different countries is holding back the whole process, says the report; which questions whether there is sufficient political will to drive through the reforms needed to make a success of the European Higher Education Area.

Social dimension is crucial

The ESU says that the social dimension is one of the crucial aspects of the Bologna Process to ensure that the student body mirrors the diversity of the population.

Yet, according to responses from student unions, higher education institutions only consider social dimension to be a high priority in eight countries: Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Croatia, Bulgaria, Estonia, the United Kingdom and Slovenia.

That low figure is only outdone by the unions’ opinion of how important the social dimension is for their governments, with only Malta, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia and the UK reporting positively.

“A surprisingly large number of the unions reported that they feel they are the only stakeholder with any interest in the social dimension,” said ESU report.

Worryingly, unions from 10 countries reported that there are no clear procedures in place at institutions to prevent discrimination.

While students with physical disabilities are generally protected, unions reported that only seven countries provide protection for mature students (over 25); 10 reported protective measures for students from immigrant backgrounds and 12 for students with children or other dependents.

Underrepresented groups

As for underrepresented groups of students, often defined simply as students from low socio-economic backgrounds or with physical or mental health issues, individual countries’ student unions identified other specific examples of underrepresentation.

“In Lithuania, students who grew up in state foster homes, also commonly known as state orphans, are highly underrepresented. In Ireland the same applies for members of the Irish Traveller community. The status of LGBTQ students could not be reported in Macedonia, since the government does not officially recognise them,” said the ESU report.

As for national plans for widening access to quality higher education – a key along Bologna goal adopted by the last ministerial conference in Bucharest in 2012 – only two countries, the UK and Bulgaria, were reported to have successfully implemented access plans.

On quality assurance, which the ESU sees as having multiple purposes including enhancing learning and teaching, building trust among stakeholders and increasing harmonisation and comparability in the EHEA, the report says the UK may be a good example of a system of institutional assurance designed to improve the quality of higher education institutions.

As for student participation in quality assurance, almost every country has student representatives on quality reviews. The only exception being Belarus!

However, only three countries, Lithuania, the UK and Armenia, allow students to be the chair or secretary of external review panels.

Structural reforms are key

bologna processStructural reforms are seen as one of the key tools to achieve the Bologna goals by enabling comparability, compatibility and trust between countries in order to ensure that students can move freely within Europe by facilitating the recognition of qualifications.

“Additionally, they aim to improve the quality of higher education by providing the transparency necessary to communicate the qualifications and learning outcomes students are expected to achieve or have achieved”, says the report.

The three core components of the structural reforms in the Bologna Process are qualifications frameworks, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, or ECTS, and the three-cycle degree system. The ESU says all three must be considered holistically.

The report says the implementation of a functioning national qualification framework remains a major challenge for the vast majority of countries. ECTS has been implemented in many countries, but often only superficially without using workload on learning outcomes.

As for the three-cycle system, there is still large variation in understanding what constitutes a bachelor’s, masters or doctoral degree.

Student unions surveyed complained of a lack of political will and consistency when implementing the structural reforms in their respective countries, with a Romanian response saying: “We have a national qualifications framework, we participated in its elaboration, but almost no one knows about it and it is not used by higher education institutions.”

As for ECTS, another cornerstone of the Bologna Process, which contributes to facilitating mobility and recognition through improving comparability and compatibility, over two thirds of unions stated that it that it was in use in the country. But only four unions were satisfied with its implementation.

Many reported that its implementation was often superficial, with countries simply translating the number of credits from previous systems to ECTS credits.

Lack of consistency

A major challenge is the lack of consistency. For example some masters degrees 60 credits, some 90 and some hundred and some 120. “This creates a major challenge for mobility and recognition of foreign qualifications”, says the report.

The ESU says: “Without proper implementation, we cannot reach the main aims of the Bologna Process, such as recognition and the freedom for students and staff to move freely throughout the EHEA.”

The ESU is also worried that some governments may be using the Bologna name to push forward unpopular national reforms and calls for the establishment of a control mechanism to verify that governments and institutions are not misusing the Bologna name to justify policies that are unrelated to it.

Responding to the ESU report, Nathalie Vandystadt, European Commission spokesperson for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said:
“The success of Bologna cooperation is remarkable but of course the process has faced many challenges. More work remains to complete the common European Higher Education Area, and our latest Bologna report clearly recognises that.

“Now is not the time to look back, but to put fresh and bold emphasis on implementing the needed reforms. All governments that are part of the process have agreed to do this.”

“Despite significant progress, implementation of Bologna reforms, including the automatic recognition of degrees, remains uneven. In some countries, recognition is close to automatic while in others, it continues to be an obstacle to mobility.

“Ministers of all 47 participating countries have put this at the centre of our priorities for the next three years as a key part of completing the implementation of the European Higher Education Area.”

+ Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his [url= style=bluelink]website[/url).

+ This feature story first appeared in University World News, published on 10 July 2015, under the headline ‘European student union’s warning over Bologna dream’.