Collecting study points abroad for six months is easier than ever these days. Many students therefore seek out the Mediterranean sun or enjoy the cheap beer in Eastern Europe. All this was made possible by the Bologna Declaration, but how much has higher education achieved with it?
Students cheer! It is twenty years since the Bologna Declaration was implemented. The main purpose of this declaration was to create a common European area of higher education, where the mobility of students, teachers and knowledge would be promoted. In doing so, Europe sought to strengthen its competitive position in higher education compared to the United States, Canada and Australia. In addition, some countries used the declaration to drastically improve the quality of education. ‘There were great concerns about the state of higher education in different European countries,’ says Robert Wagenaar, professor of history and policy of higher education and expert in the Bologna process. “In Italy, for example, there was no clear curriculum and students could choose their own subjects. As a result, the students continued to study indefinitely, ‘he explains.
To improve the competitiveness of European higher education, they turned to the rest of the world. A common bachelor-master structure (BaMa structure) was introduced, which was already the norm in large parts of the world. In addition, all participating countries introduced the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). Since then, the value of the courses has been expressed in points. Since then, students from Europe have been able to study elsewhere more easily, and universities have been able to pick up big heads from abroad. This metamorphosis should elevate European higher education to a higher level. Yet in many European countries there is criticism of the current state of education. What has European integration actually achieved in higher education?
Cut like toddlers
Although the implementation of ECTS proceeded almost without problems, the BaMa structure was not implemented in the same way everywhere. Countries had great freedom in terms of implementation. For example, Spain chose a four-year bachelor’s degree instead of a three-year one. “The teachers who were afraid of losing their jobs,” says Wagenaar. They feared that many students would drop out after their undergraduate degree, which means fewer teachers will be needed. France proved unable to liberate the existing system, which was a goal. ‘There is still a big difference in France between elite universities and the rest,’ Wagenaar emphasizes.
The changes were also not always implemented strictly in the Netherlands because there were no specific guidelines. This caused problems at Radboud University (RU). ‘Initially, the Executive Board (CvB) wanted to change the educations radically, but with the arrival of a new chairman of the Executive Board, the far-reaching changes put an end to,’ says Frans Janssen, former police officer at RUC. An academic education should consist of a relatively broad three-year bachelor’s degree and an in-depth master’s degree. In Europe, a two-year master’s degree became the norm. In the Netherlands, there were four- and five-year courses that were split up, which according to Janssen gave the first problems: ‘The ministry did not want to contribute an extra year to the four-year courses, which resulted in many one-year master’s programs.’ It fits poorly into the structure of the rest of Europe and means that graduate students have to start their thesis almost immediately.
Despite the fact that the implementation did not go smoothly, it became easier for the universities to exchange teachers and students. ‘When students and teachers go on exchanges, there must be agreement on the quality requirements of the education,’ says Wagenaar. Therefore, it was necessary to install a quality management system. The Netherlands and Flanders led the way in this process. “A group set up by these countries has developed the criteria that eventually developed into the quality framework for higher education,” says Wagenaar. However, Peter van der Hijden, a former European Commissioner for Higher Education, said that cross-border quality assurance was not always valued: “Countries felt they could do better for quality assurance themselves and were afraid of losing their power. The universities ‘choice of cross-border quality agencies was therefore approved with the proviso that it would not be contrary to national law.’ Nevertheless, universities are often pleased that the quality assurance system has been implemented. At present, European universities and external organizations in the participating countries use the framework to study and equalize the quality of higher education. “This has greatly improved the level of European higher education as a whole, at least on paper,” says Wagenaar.
Brain drain or brain gain
The changes therefore led to an increasing concentration in European higher education. However, the quality of higher education in the Bologna region is not yet seen by many as equal. Universities in Western and Northern Europe are still highly regarded as universities in Southern and Eastern Europe. As a result, brain drain occurs in countries in the latter areas, Wagenaar sees: ‘Croatia and Lithuania are textbook examples of this, where it is seen that after the bachelor’s degree, almost all students travel to Western European countries.’ Van der Hijden agrees. ‘People can move freely within higher education and therefore choose to go to higher education or to go to countries where they can make more money afterwards,’ he says. Countries of origin face academic exclusion. ‘Due to increased mobility, the distribution of academic talent has become more unequal than more equal,’ the former police officer concludes. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to counteract the brain drain. ‘By getting Southern and Eastern European universities to work with Western European universities, it can provide an incentive to improve education there,’ says Wagenaar.
Van der Hijden believes that the brain drain process is not necessarily bad for Europe as a whole. “Concentrating academics and talents in a certain number of countries and cities can improve competitiveness relative to the rest of the world,” he says. Clusters of academics and talents will increase collaboration and productivity. “If Europe really wants to stand out, the EU should fund five or ten of these clusters in different disciplines,” Van der Hijden explains. He cites Silicon Valley in the United States as an example of such a cluster of knowledge. The most influential technology companies in the world are based here and are constantly attracting new talent and knowledge. Gathering knowledge in this way would mean for Europe that it would become a leader in certain areas for the rest of the world, which is good for Europe’s dominant position. In addition, it attracts companies, which is also good for employment
The struggle for the student
Thanks to the standardization of European higher education, Europe has been able to catch up with the rest of the world. However, the competition has also brought a new discussion. Universities like to bring in the best academics so they focus logically on international recruitment and courses. ‘Students from all over the world fill the classrooms, they take all their experiences from their own country with them,’ says Wagenaar. “You learn about other cultures, which is important in a globalizing world,” he continues. According to the Planning Agency, this increased competition may also lead to educational institutions being encouraged to further improve the quality of courses. After all, if there is more on offer, students will choose the courses with the best quality.
Nevertheless, according to the opponents of this competition, there are also disadvantages. They argue, for example, that a quality improvement is not objectively observable and that it is therefore impossible for students to make an informed choice. According to them, universities therefore invest in their reputation rather than the quality of education. For example, more and more universities are using social media. For example, RUC is now also active on TikTok and explicitly profiles itself as a sustainable university.
The increased internationalization also has consequences that flare up in the discussion about the struggle for the students. More and more courses are offered in whole or in part in English. Opponents of Anglicis point out that the quality of the mother tongue among domestic students is deteriorating and that they cannot express themselves in the same way in lectures as in their mother tongue. Wagenaar acknowledges that in some cases it is more convenient to teach in the official language of the country where the university is located. He cites history and art history in the Netherlands as an example: “One can do such courses in English, but the subject of the study is often the Netherlands. These sources are therefore mostly written in Dutch. ‘ He nuances that in other subjects it can be useful to teach in English. “If you are studying Science or Architecture, for example, it is better to do it in English, as the working language and the academic language are primarily English,” Wagenaar perspectives. It is important for the quality of teaching that high quality English is spoken by both teachers and students, and it is not a matter of course.
Europe’s influence has left a big mark on higher education. For example, radical changes such as the introduction of the BaMa structure and ECTS have largely standardized European higher education. It is difficult to determine whether the quality of education in Europe has really improved. It is also highly doubtful whether the fruits of the Bologna process have been fairly distributed. One thing is for sure: the Bologna metamorphosis brings European students one step closer to global citizenship.
This article has previously been in ANS newspaper 11†