Bologna Process & Liberal Education

ECOLAS was founded in response to the changing educational landscape in Europe. While the Bologna Process was supposed to reform and streamline higher education, its goals have only been partially achieved so far. The introduction of the bachelor/master structure across Europe, for instance, has not led to a significant improvement. Rather, in most countries the attention seems to have been focused more on improving master’s programs, while the bachelor phase has remained largely undervalued. By contrast, ECOLAS believes that it is during the undergraduate phase of higher education that a strong academic basis should be laid. Moreover, the three liberal arts and sciences universities involved in the founding of ECOLAS feel that the quality of the bachelor degree is instrumental in attracting and creating a pool of European talents. Its primary mission therefore is to promote undergraduate liberal arts and sciences programs across Europe.



“The Bologna Process aims to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010, in which students can choose from a wide and transparent range of high quality courses and benefit from smooth recognition procedures. The Bologna Declaration of June 1999 has put in motion a series of reforms needed to make European Higher Education more compatible and comparable, more competitive and more attractive for Europeans and for students and scholars from other continents. Reform was needed then and reform is still needed today if Europe is to match the performance of the best performing systems in the world, notably the United States and Asia. The three priorities of the Bologna process are: Introduction of the three cycle system (bachelor/master/doctorate), quality assurance and recognition of qualifications and periods of study.”

The Bologna Process: Towards the European Higher Education Area



Relation of Liberal Arts and Sciences to Bologna Process



The Bologna Process and European Higher Education


By Peter I. Rose and Barbara Weitgruber*


Few American academics have heard the phrase “Bologna Process.” This is not the case in Europe where, it seems, everyone involved in — and many others concerned with — higher education is debating “Bologna,” the shorthand term for a sweeping plan to change the very structure of higher education.


The expression is derived from the place where, on June 19, 1999, Ministers of Education from all over Europe gathered together and, after considerable debate, agreed to endorse the spirit of what is known as the Bologna Magna Charta Universitatum of 1998 and put forth a set of guidelines to achieve its objectives. The charter stressed the importance of protecting the autonomy of universities and their primary functions of teaching and research while at the same time encouraging responsiveness to changing needs, societal demands, the greater sharing of scientific information and other forms of cooperation, and the creation of a trans-European paradigm for higher education itself.


In discussions held in Bologna in 1999, a principal focus was on addressing the lack of “easily readable and comparable degrees” and the need for a “standardized system of credits” in order to enhance mobility. In a dramatic step (at least for many steeped in a highly pillared system of Humboldtian education, often characterized as a collection of disciplinary “fiefdoms” generally controlled by senior professors), the assemblage of European ministers negotiated and endorsed the “Bologna Declaration” calling for a two cycle, undergraduate/graduate (or Bachelor/Master) sequence, the first part at least quite similar to what is standard practice in American colleges and universities.


There was (and continues to be) much talk of introducing a more pyramidal structure that allows for greater opportunities for students to take a broader array of courses than ever before while moving them steadily in the direction of a “major. Most would be expected to go on to Stage Two, concentrated graduate work for a Master’s degree. In all programs, 60 credits per year are required. The combination of Bachelor and Master degree study would last five years (either “3+2” or “4+1”).


Over the past two decades, more and more countries have joined the process and the move toward the implementation of “Bologna.” The Ministers meet every two years to review the progress made, to accept new members, to agree on future action, and to refine the proposed measures to take into account the concerns and criticisms of the various stakeholders. The first follow-up meeting took place in Prague in 2001(with Croatia, Cyprus and Turkey joining); the second one was in Berlin in 2003. At that meeting the process was opened to all member countries of the European Cultural Convention of the Council of Europe, e.g. all South Eastern European countries, the Holy See, Andorra, and Russia. This meant a total of 40 countries. Now there are even more.


The meetings of ministers take place jointly with representatives of the higher education sector and student representatives as well as international organizations active in higher education and the European Commission.


Not all those who will have to carry out the new plans have been eager to embrace what has been wrought from the top down. Resistance has come from several quarters. First are those who say that, contrary to protecting university autonomy (a key element of the Magna Charta Universitatum), “Bologna,” weakens it by taking away the ultimate authority for determining the requirements for degree structure and impinging on the rights of their sacrosanct institutions.


Other critics, some quite vocal, while conceding the fact that changes are definitely needed in the universities of Europe, worry that the whole enterprise is yet another expression of acquiescence to American hegemony, adding educational ideology to the already too-pervasive influences in other realms.


Third are university administrators and professors who see the necessity for reform but feel that things are moving too fast and that what is being proposed is really not even putting new wine in old bottles, but simply changing the labels on some of them even though this is not at all what is intended. For example, there are those in the Netherlands who say they already have a two-step system, the Candidaats (indicating “candicacy,” a readiness to go on for a degree) which some see as the equivalent of a B.A. although it is not officially recognized as such, followed by the Doctoraal ,which is not the same as a doctorate but is essentially a master’s degree similar to the German Magistre, the Italian Laurea, and the French License, and that something even more radical is called for. It should be noted that what is proposed, and it is in fact quite radical, for the establishment of a first degree (BA) gives those who attain it the key credential to move on the graduate work in Europe and elsewhere in the world.


It ought not to be surprising that the most criticism comes from those in the best established and most traditional universities of western Europe, while those in newer universities in the west and almost all those in countries that had been long under Soviet influence, have been most eager to endorse the Bologna process.


In general, however, it may be said that considerable progress is being made within the academic communities across most of the continent, even as — or perhaps because — universities there as everywhere are also facing an array of new challenges, not least the reorganization of governance, the imposition on tuition fees in many places and the pressure to seek outside funding from alumni networks, corporations, and foundations, the call for more transparency in faculty recruitment and promotion, and intense discussions about the role of the university in the wider society.


In Austria, for example, the Bologna Process has been high on the agenda of individual universities and a top priority at the period meetings of the Rectors’ Conference. There a whole range of Bologna-related topics are discussed, including such matters as new quality controls, student inputs, greater emphasis on interdisciplinary curricula particularly on emphasis on European issues, as well as new programs for lifelong learning.


Reports from the Bologna-based Magna Charta Observatory, which monitors programs in higher education in Europe and publishes periodic reports on specific case studies, indicates that such issues are hardly unique to Austria.


It is our belief that, despite the continuing resistance in some places to the two-cycle system, it will soon be in place throughout much of the continent and that while some rearguard actions are still to be fought over it, the major battle for the basic goals of Bologna are rapidly being realized. The next step, which has been agreed upon by the ministers in charge of higher education at their meeting in Berlin in September 2003, will be consideraation of the third stage or doctoral level.


In Europe there are many kinds of ways of obtaining a doctorate, from simply writing a thesis acceptable to a small board of professors, which provides for a title and a certain status beyond the groves of academe but little else within them, to the years and years of work to complete the “Habilitation,” that many in Europe would call a “super-PhD.” There is little if anything in between, and certainly very few “course-work- plus-qualifying examination- plus dissertation-and its defense” Ph.D programs” so familiar to those in the United States


While it is our expectation that, by the target date of 2010, some variation of the type of academic doctorate will replace the different kinds that now exist in Europe, we expect that, in the short term, vigorous debates about it will continue among the current professoriate because it cuts closest to home. Many will complain that instituting the new (read: “American”) doctorate will be the ultimate surrender to academic homogenization. Still, what is intended is to make the European systems more comparable, transparent and compatible and more competitive. Indeed, “Bologna” is one of the most concrete examples of growing cooperation between the long rival and frequent warring nations of Europe and, focusing on the one institution that most effects the training of the leaders of the coming generation, a principal vehicle for true integration. This and many other accomplishments will be celebrated on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the original charter at a four-day gathering at the University of Bologna in the fall of 2008.


There new challenges will be discussed by Collegium President Prof. Dr. Michael Daxner and many others. Among them might be academic exchanges, curricular designs, and continuing debates about assessment, accreditation, financing, and the relationship between universities and outside interests. What may also be noted is that, while more and more of those in higher education have accepted the efficacy of the new system and the credibility of the new degrees, they must help to convince those in industry and commerce in the European Union to recognize them, too.

*Dr. Peter I. Rose, Sophia Smith Professor Emeritus of Smith College in the USA and former chair of the International Board of University College, Utrecht University in the Netherlands, was a Fulbright Senior Specialist at the University of Vienna in the Spring of 2004. He currently holds a similar position at the Roosevelt Academy of Utrecht University.


Mag. Barbara Weitgruber, a member of the Austrian Fulbright Board, is the former Director General, Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.