From the big picture to close ups: in Zagreb and Vienna the week the European Higher Education Area was launched

Editor’s note: this entry has been kindly contributed by Anne Corbett, Visiting Fellow, European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Anne Corbett, author of one other entry in GlobalHigherEd (‘A European view of the new Adelman report on the Bologna Process’ 16 April 2009) is also author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

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As noted in a recent GlobalHigherEd entry by Kris Olds (‘The Global Bologna Policy Forum: a forum for the emerging global higher education and research space?‘ 13 March 2010), the development of the Bologna Policy Forum brings the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) firmly into the international relations domain. But I think it is instructive to know about the politics too, as a minimum to learn how the Forum idea emerged, and how Kazakhstan became the 47th Bologna member (see below); ideally to have a better understanding of what makes European universities tick.

Helped by some fortuitous travel in the Spring of 2010, herewith my snapshots of the recent events in and around the celebrations for the Bologna decade and the second meeting of the Bologna Policy Forum.

On assessing the Bologna decade: First stop Zagreb

When higher education ministers were packing their bags for Budapest and Vienna, I was at a conference at the University of Zagreb, along with Bologna’s most articulate philosopher, Pavel Zgaga (and occasional GlobalHigherEd contributor – see ‘Bologna: beyond 2010 and over the Ocean – but where to? On new Bologna reports and C. Adelman’s last essay‘, 11 May 2009). Further details on the conference (UNESCO Chair Round Table: “Processing the Bologna Process: Current Losses and Future Gains”, 5-6 March 2010) are available here.

At the conference, a former president of the Austrian rectors’ organisation who was a Bologna player in the early days, expressed astonishment at the progress towards a European higher education area over the ten years. ‘Whenever three or four rectors are gathered together, let alone rectors’ organisations, we sign a declaration. We don’t necessarily expect to hear more of it.’

To cue, a Croatian professor with a big public reputation explained why so many policy initiatives in his experience are doomed. ‘We have lived under Moscow, Belgrade, Zagreb and now we have to live under Brussels. We know about sabotaging government initiatives’. He hoped that ‘this new policy for the management of knowledge’ which ‘infantilised’ true scholars would be ignored.

One plus one is never two in the light (Picasso)

So what does engagement with Bologna, rather than sabotage, look like? Recognising the challenge over recent months, some academics at the University of Zagreb decided to try and confront the grumblings. They formed a group which ranged from researcher to vice-rector level, working with the UNESCO Chair for Governance and Management of Higher Education, Pavel Gregorić (pictured to the right), who has a PhD from Oxford. They had the support of the rector, Aleksa Bjeliš.

The result: two days of discussions in Spring 2010 bringing together academics concerned with evidence of change as well as the arguments; politicians who had initiated Croatia’s Bologna law of 2002 and its subsequent amendments; some of the relevant officials; and a few of us foreigners.

Zagreb, Croatia’s largest and most scientifically productive university, has seen some painful confrontations in the past. Founded by the Jesuits in 1669, it was a player in the 18th century conversion to the secular and scientific values when Maria Theresa, Empress of Austro-Hungary broke with the Jesuits in the 18th century, and her despotic son, Emperor Joseph II went to promote the Enlightenment. In 2009 it was out-sitting sitting-in students who believe ‘Education is not for Sale’ – widely written  as ‘$A£€’. And in between it has faced such traumatic events as the break-up of Yugoslavia and (re-) establishing a nation.

Bologna confrontations in this conference were, however, of the fruitful kind. All recognised that they were engaged in a process which takes them into an EHEA. The questions were how and what they could do to shape outcomes. Some of the evidence was positive. Within the university, drop out rates have fallen significantly where newly structured courses have been introduced, and there appears to be benefits from a greater concentration on teaching, taking some quality-oriented thinking from Bologna. They made it sound like a demonstration of Cliff Adelman’s concept of an ‘accountability loop’ which emerges from a linkage of course reconstruction, quality assurance and credits (see my entry ‘A European view of the new Adelman report on the Bologna Process‘).

In another register, a music professor showed a film of students who were in no way selected musical geniuses, and how they had been ‘metamorphosed’ by the experience of preparing an opera. It was he who gave the wonderful quote from Picasso on the potentially creative nature of educational experience that ‘one plus one is never two in the light’.

But there are difficulties associated with mobility and recognition of foreign studies by universities, and scepticism among employers about new degrees.

Some of the academics in the audience blamed the Croatian government’s interpretation of Bologna, punning on the local word ‘bolonja’ which, linked to spaghetti, is junk food.

Under the Croatian law, the University’s Faculty of Law, which is respected across Europe by academic lawyers and political scientists, cannot establish a graduate school in the political sciences. Faculty and research candidates with masters’ degrees from Columbia and LSE, are turned away unless they do supplementary studies, to stretch the masters’ process to two years. The holder of a Yale doctorate avoided trouble when she applied for her post by producing a supplementary and longer thesis in Croatian.

But the politicians and some academics have their complaints too. Too many academics are not being responsible about making the new three-year bachelors degree work; they stay wedded to the long five-year structure.

These would, however, seem to be problems with solutions, given some time, some goodwill, more European exchange of ideas, and factors such as the demographic downtown, that will surely have universities begging for students, be they lifelong learners or foreign students.  What was impressive about this conference was the degree of apparent openness with which these issues were aired, and the evident interdisciplinary, intergenerational mix. It surely could not have happened without the existence of Bologna, or even bolonja.

Die Wissenschaft und ihre Lehre ist frei

Next stop Vienna. Though I have the necessary plastic card I’m not here to dress up in a ballgown to swing through the Imperial Palace, possibly alongside EHEA ministers. I’ve come in part to do some work with Elsa Hackl, a colleague in political science, and author of a pioneering study of how Bologna was born.

After the calm around the Zagreb rectorate, the shabby 1970s political science building of the University of Vienna exudes political buzz. Free coffee is on offer to those who will demonstrate against neo-liberalism. They need to shout ‘Bologna burns’ at ministers, who will be driven past in buses heavily protected by police escorts and helicopter surveillance. Next to coffee vending machines are those ‘spag.bol.’ references in English: ‘Bologna is Junk Food’.

In all the bustle, you might be forgiven for not seeing the brass inscription on the staircase with that great Germanic statement of academic freedom, Die Wissenschaft und ihre Lehre ist freiScience and its teaching are free. That comes from the Austrian constitution of 1867, alongside the constitutional guarantees of religious toleration and the right of all citizens to hold public office. It’s their birthright. So it’s unsurprising that these days ‘free’ applies to cash as well as to conscience and academic freedom. You have to salute the intellectual creativity of protestors in Austria in some universities where variable fees are being discussed of up to 30 000 euros p.a. in coming up with the slogan: ‘We want rich parents for everyone’.

We want rich parents for everyone

Next day by clean and uncrowded U-bahn and bus for the European Student Union (ESU) Summit. The venue provided by the Austrian government is well away from the hectic city centre. Not, I think, that there was much danger of these ESU students joining any wild or unelected crowd.

The ESU Executive, currently led by Ligia Deca (pictured to the left) from Romania, has a reputation for producing the knowledgeable and sophisticated student politicians who are the generation who will make the European Higher Education Area a bureaucratic reality. There are already a number of ESU alumni well placed as officials in national ministries, including at least one director general of higher education. Others have passed through the Council of Europe. Several are on the way to producing good PhDs on higher education in Europe so maybe they are among future philosophers of education. Difficult to imagine they will sink into invisibility.

This year these elected members have had to negotiate between their potentially conflicting positions as key policy players with the Bologna Follow-up Group, and as representatives of national unions. The question has become more acute after weeks in which student protesters in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Croatia showed some signs of coalescing on criticisms of university working conditions, and national unions themselves have been wavering between turning the other way, and support. The considerable ESU achievement was to dampen down a celebratory mood within the arcane structures of Bologna, and to have ministers say in the Vienna Declaration:

Recent protests in some countries partly directed against developments and measures not related to the Bologna Process have reminded is that some of the Bologna aims and reforms have not been properly implemented and explained. We acknowledge and will listen to the critical voices raised among staffs and students, We note that adjustments and further work, involving staff and students are necessary at European, national, and especially institutional levels to achieve the EHEA as we now envisage it.

I’m speaking on a panel at this ESU meeting with Barbara Weitgruber (pictured to the right), Senior Adviser on International Relations in Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft und Forschung (Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research). She has been an influential figure in the Bologna Process over the whole decade, not least for chairing the working group which produced the Bologna policy forum idea in 2007. Those who have worked with her say her attention to detail has been remarkable in keeping the show on the road.

But maybe what makes her special is that she is a doughty exploiter of the geography which has made Vienna – rather than London or Paris – a natural centre for Bologna.  Shades of The Third Man and the Austrian ability to live in a very complex world: Austria, and Weitgruber in particular, appear to have been favoured interlocutors with many of the small Bologna states, especially the newer entrants to the Process.  They often complain about being shut out or misunderstood by the EU ‘bigs’.

Being proud of the European tradition

My last appointment is back at the University of Vienna. This time I see the university in all its Austro-Hungarian grandeur, with the grandest rooms of all set aside for the European University Association (EUA) to present Trends VI. This is the latest and most ambitious of the surveys the EUA and its predecessor have undertaken since 1999 on how Bologna is perceived at institution level. For the first time the EUA is able to include Russia and Serbia in its site visits.

The proceedings are opened by Georg Winckler (pictured to the right), Rector of the University of Vienna and president of the EUA from 2005-2009. Winckler has been portrayed in an academic trade union postcard (as pictured below and to the left) as Louis XIV with the inscription L’Université c’est moi’. But as I’ve noted before, Winckler has an impressive ability to project a long-term vision of the European University ['Six to be reckoned with at the Bologna conference', Guardian, 21 April 2009] and to make Europeans proud of their university tradition.  He is able to synthesise the Humboldtian vision of the research base of the university, the American conception of post-doctoral research as a resource to be nurtured, and the European Commission rhetoric of innovation, opportunity and autonomy, with the condition it is counter-balanced by the Bologna conception of intergovernmental and stakeholder governance.

Here he and Eric Froment, his predecessor as EUA president (2001-2005), do a double act on the dynamics of a European knowledge space.   Mobility remains a priority, especially between degrees (vertical mobility). Taking Commission figures they say that at present 97% of European PhDs have not been employed outside their PhD country, not a recipe for innovative thought. There needs to be closer cooperation between the EHEA and the European Research and Innovation Area. Winckler is concerned about employability. Few attempts are being made to sharpen the profile of the bachelor degree. Froment takes a more cultural stand. The EHEA needs to be recognisably European. If he is saying that Bologna is part of a package, which implies some solidarity, and not a set of tools to enhance higher education global trading, he may have some attentive listeners.

The Trends report itself deserves a serious analysis for which there is not space here. I simply comment that its optimistic conclusions should remind us that these are the views of university leadership. The finding that almost 60 per cent of respondents think Bologna has been ‘very positive’, and 77 per cent say ‘all departments’ have reconsidered curricula, are not necessarily the views of academics at large. Those willing to struggle with teaching and learning issues à la Zagreb too often find the going is tough, especially when resources for extra work are lacking.

But the big message that the Trends survey, and my trip to Zagreb and Vienna convey is that over the Bologna decade, very different local interpretations about what really matters do co-exist with a common vocabulary on European higher education objectives. However since there is a vast diversity of ways in which the Bologna reform is being implemented in different countries, different universities and different departments within the same university, how issues pan out depends on particular dynamics. Success requires strong political commitment within each and every signatory country (see ‘My, how you’ve grown‘, Times Higher Education, 11 March 2010 for a fuller argument).

From a distance what’s happening might seem typically European in its lack of clarity. But the rich mix of cultures, languages and national experience within Europe are generating an intellectual energy which runs counter to much of the doom-mongering about the poor state of European universities outside those at the top of the Shanghai Jiao Tong league, among economists, in particular.

As to the questions I left unanswered above: The Bologna Policy Forum, in addition to its known characteristics, is a neat way of avoiding the definition of Europe’s boundaries. In a first step, in face of persistent requests from Israel and others to join, the Bologna Process relied on the Council of Europe definition of signatories to its Cultural Convention to exclude those outside the continent. At a second stage, the organisers saw that there was not only a demand for membership, but even more a demand for dialogue from others, including the US and Australia and yes, including Ethiopia, so much the better. Hence the Forum.

And how has Kazakhstan got in under the wire?  I can report that at the Magna Charta ceremonies in 2009, ministers and rectors were present with a map showing that they have more landmass than Turkey, long-time Bologna member on the continent of Europe, as calculated west of a certain longitude. I am not quite sure which, and by my map the claim would probably make Iran eligible too.  Who knows? Bologna continues to serve up surprises.

Anne Corbett

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3 thoughts on “From the big picture to close ups: in Zagreb and Vienna the week the European Higher Education Area was launched

  1. Pingback: O bolonjskoj reformi iz visoke perspektive « Blogomdan

  2. Pingback: Zagreb iz šire perspektive « UNESCO Chair of Higher Education, University of Zagreb

  3. Pingback: Students: hitch up to Europe « GlobalHigherEd

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