It’s all bologna. No, not the luncheon meat. The city in Europe. The home of the first modern university, founded about eight centuries ago.
It was in bologna ten years ago that education ministers from throughout Europe signed an agreement. What has become known in Europe as the bologna process called for big changes in how universities organize their academic programs, how they award academic credit, and how they demonstrate their effectiveness. The process encourages students from one country to study in another and it makes sure that the credits they earn are good anywhere. The process is also aimed at expanding access to higher education for Europeans--and at enrolling more students from outside Europe, students now studying in the United States and Great Britain. In short, the aim of bologna is to restore Europe to what Europeans see as their rightful place as the world’s leading higher educator.
Well, we are ten years down the road, and the political leaders and higher educators in Europe are taking stock. It’s a mixed picture. Most European universities now offer their programs according to the same structure--a three-year bachelor’s degree followed by a two-year master’s program. And that is a big change from the confusing jumble of programs that existed before bologna. In many of the subjects that are taught, faculty members have agreed on what students must learn. You can read their agreements on-line. And they’ve moved to make academic credits more portable. A traditional diploma now comes with a supplement to explain just what the graduate can be expected to know and to do.
But there are many of bologna’s objectives that are far from complete and some are just getting started. For instance, hoped for increases in college enrollments have been stymied by the recession and by increases in the costs of attending. As a result of this mixed picture, the forty-two participating countries have decided to extend the bologna process for another decade.
But even with its mixed success, the bologna process is one that many American political leaders and college faculty are likely to be looking at--closely. Most of what Europe has been trying to do; the U.S. has been trying to do, for a long time, but with less coordination and with far less urgency.
The three-year degree cuts out most of what we would call a general, or liberal, education. That puts more pressure on us. colleges to justify why four years are necessary. The emphasis on student freedom of movement from one European country to another may prompt attention to our high out-of-state tuition rates that discourage such mobility. Reaching agreement about what degrees should mean and what courses should teach has to be a good idea. Then academic credits would hold their value when students transfer. And making sure that financial reasons do not prevent qualified students from attending college seems like a priority for Europe and for the U.S.
Next spring in Budapest and Vienna, European education ministers will convene to celebrate some successes and to re-enlist for a second decade. But whether or not the bologna process finally amounts to a genuine revolution in higher education or falls off into another bureaucratic exercise, its impressive agenda offers a clear challenge today. And we need to pay attention.