The UK and the Bologna Process – a case of disquiet within the camp?

International observers of Europe’s rapidly expanding Bologna Process (there are 45 signatory countries at present and growing) are awed at the scale of the initiative and and shaken by implications for their own competitive positions. However, there is also disquiet within some of the Member States of Europe over the reach of ‘Europe’ into national territory. As part of the lead up to the London Ministerial Summit held on May 17th-18th 2007, the UK House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (a cross party group chaired by Labour MP Barry Sheerman) was commissioned to produce a report to present to Parliament on the benefits of the UK’s participation in the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

The ensuing Report The Bologna Process, makes for a very interesting read, not just for Bologna followers, but for those following processes of regional and global governance more generally. Several concerns are raised in the Report. The first is the issue of uniformity that would arise from a similar degree architecture, and whether this would undermine any comparative advantage the UK might have in relation to other Member States (language issues aside). The second is the question of flexibility, and the need to be nimble and responsive to a fast changing global market. Would the overlay of ‘Europe’ limit the options and slow down the pace necessary to respond? The third is one that the European Commission has sought to deflect (and it is sensitive to) and that is the matter of national sovereignty and the principle of subsidiarity with regard to education. As the Report states:

The expanding role of the European Community in the field of education, however, and the belief that it is seeking to expand its role through the mechanisms of the Bologna Process, is a major cause of concern to UK organizations and institutions. It is also our greatest concern regarding the future of the Bologna Process.

The Report goes on to recommend that:

…the government [UK] seeks clarification of the exact role of the Commission in the Bologna Process. A way must be found to ensure its involvement does not undermine the essentially voluntary and ‘bottom up’ approaches characteristic of its development to date. It remains crucial to the success of the Bologna Process that it remains outside of the framework of the EC.

We can see in this UK Report a real concern over the encroachment of the European Commission into higher education and, by implication, national affairs. However, one interesting outcome of the elision of the European Commission with the ‘constructing Europe as a regional project’ is that actors like the European University Association tend to be identified as ‘national’ in their interests and thus part of a bottom-up approach. However, the EUA has been an active agent in the process of creating the EHEA, and thus Europe as an entity, not just the European Commission. Indeed it has worked closely with the European Commission on this. As a political strategy, the European Commission might be best advised to continue letting the EUA drive the process, for it has not only resulted in less resistance from Member States but also remarkable results – an outcome the European Commission must be more than moderately happy about.

The other issue facing the UK is the question that countries like Australia, among others, are grappling with regarding the Bologna Process. If they ignore it, then they may well be marginalised in ways that would undermine the UK global higher education competitive strategy. For the UK as well, it is also the possibility of losing control over driving the process.

There may well be disquiet within the camp, but it is hard to see the UK going it alone.

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