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The Bologna Process: look-back, snapshot and foresight

European higher education has made tremendous progress since the Bologna Declaration. As EUA President Michael Murphy writes, there is much to celebrate, but still much to achieve in ensuring the sector’s place as a global leader.

The Bologna Declaration, signed twenty years ago, reiterated the crucial role of universities in consolidating the cultural, social, and values-driven shared citizenship of Europe. It was devised in an era of optimism, economic growth, and dramatic European integration – 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its ambitions were lofty, its prescriptions practical and its implementation clear.

Look-back

In retrospect, we can take pride in the scale of change. Our European Higher Education landscape today is vastly different and our achievements were justly celebrated in the Paris Communique last year: “We have built something unique: a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in which goals and policies are agreed upon at European level, and then implemented in national education systems and higher education institutions. Where governments, higher education institutions and stakeholders are shaping the landscape of higher education together; that demonstrates what a joint effort and continuous dialogue among governments and the higher education sector can attain.”

Above all, the Bologna Process has demonstrated the crucial role of partnership. Regular ministerial meetings have sustained the energy and momentum and should continue to drive the process. The emergence of strong, effective, and committed pan-continental stakeholder bodies, including EUA, played a significant part. The Bologna Process itself provided a fundamental raison d’être for representative organisations, and all the ancillary benefits that we now collectively confer on the higher education system to enhance the delivery of the university missions.

Snapshot

We can also celebrate great gains in student mobility, improved comparability and transparency of our higher education systems. Furthermore, there is increased quality and attractiveness of academic programs, improved mutual understanding and trust, as well as enhanced cooperation among our higher education systems. Importantly, the EHEA ministerial meetings have a great capacity to oversee the evolution of the process, to take corrective actions and to expand its remit. The new emphasis at the Yerevan and Paris meetings on renewing the learning and teaching agenda, and the invitation to universities to refresh the entire pedagogical mission, was heartening. It was also encouraging to see the adoption of peer support processes to assist those countries and institutions facing difficulties in meeting EHEA targets. Such willingness and capacity to adapt and evolve is critical to our future success in meeting ever-growing and ever more complex global societal challenges.

Foresight

But the future is not the past. Challenges and threats abound. The re-emergence of certain forces, craftily exploiting new technologies, threaten our traditional values and freedoms in Europe and globally. We face climate change, resource depletion, forced migration and the related challenge of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But our first response must be to finish the mission originally set out in the Bologna Declaration. We must redouble our efforts to attain the full goals of the Process across Europe. This means full implementation by all countries – removing the barriers to ever greater mobility, exploiting technologies like the “European Student card” and Europass, eliminating bureaucratic resistance to recognition of prior learning, investing in our institutions, protecting university autonomy and academic freedom.

The scale of the current global challenges calls for a vision that is great – a vision that motivates, energises and unites us; a vision driven by a clear understanding of the future role of Europe in the world.

In June, India published a bold plan to renew its entire education system. In higher education, it commits to remodelling the system to create 100-150 globally competitive research-intensive universities. China, by my estimate, is spending the equivalent of 10 billion euros on 42 campuses in a five-year plan in its “double-first class universities” programme.

In the United States, two of their twenty elite institutions have published data to demonstrate that the annual revenues of corporations formed by their alumni or students equal the 10th and 11th largest economies in the world. American companies, many spawned by its universities, buy up half of all spinoffs from Europe’s universities, harvesting the benefits of European taxpayer investment in research.

In 1999, the Bologna Process ministers wrote: “We must in particular look at the objective of increasing the international competitiveness of the European system of higher education. The vitality and efficiency of any civilisation can be measured by the appeal that its culture has for other countries. We need to ensure that the European higher education system acquires a world-wide degree of attraction equal to our extraordinary cultural and scientific traditions.”

It is time to examine what was meant by “European higher education system” and what that system must look like if Europe is to be one of the four or five large geopolitical regions defining global economic, political, cultural and societal norms during the 21st century. Of course, we must remain committed to openness, sharing and multilateralism – and promote our values beyond the shores of Europe. A European university system must also be European; it must eschew elitism, the concentration of resources in few hands, and thus avoid the societal dysfunctionality that derives from inequity in educational opportunity, power and wealth. The European system must harness the excellence to be found in universities throughout the breadth of Europe and exhibit regional solidarity.

Honouring the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron, embraced by the European Council and building rapidly on the first round of funding from the Commission, we must design a comprehensive system including all universities in deep transnational networks, harvesting and coordinating excellence across the continent. Deep networks, like those being created in the European Universities Initiative, would inevitably simplify the attainment of the traditional Bologna Process goals.

These networks will require new transnational academic governance models, new funding arrangements and institutional cultural changes. This will bring a big political challenge, one first likely addressed within the EU, but where the EHEA will play a key role in including the whole of Europe in its ultimate design.

Conclusion

The Bologna Process has achieved tremendous progress in presenting the young people of Europe with unparalleled opportunities to experience the cultural diversity of Europe. It has planted a European identity in the new generation, and it has created a higher education identity for Europe around the world. It is unfinished, in the tasks it set itself, but it has exhibited the tenacity to achieve them. Its success gives us the confidence to confer on it an even greater challenge in 2019, one it hinted at in 1999: to champion the creation of a “European University System” that will partner with and compete successfully with those emerging in the other great regions of our world. Europe’s universities must be the powerhouses of European creativity, innovation and success, but they must be networked, resourced, autonomous, accountable and free to be so.

This article is based on the speech delivered by EUA President Michael Murphy at the University of Bologna on June 24, 2019 in the context of the 20th Anniversary of the Bologna Declaration.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy is the European University Association President. He has served as President of University College Cork, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Chair of the Health Research Board of Ireland, and Chair of the Irish Universities Association. President Murphy has also served on the EUA Board and is Chair of the EUA Learning & Teaching Steering Committee.

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