A European view of the new Adelman report on the Bologna Process

corbettmadisonEditor’s note: this guest entry was kindly developed by Anne Corbett, Visiting Fellow, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Dr. Corbett is author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge Ideas, Institutions and Policy Entrepreneurship in European Union Higher Education 1955-2005 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Corbett, a former journalist, is conducting intensive research on a range of issues related to the Bologna Process. She recently spoke at UW-Madison (and is pictured to the right, outside of Bascom Hall).

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As a journalist I long ago learned – yes, journalists can learn – that when one is a foreign correspondent writing about another country, one is also writing about one’s own. One plays a game of mirrors, looking for reflections. So in looking at Cliff Adelman’s new and extended report on the Bologna Process (Adelman, C. 2009. The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence. Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy), destined for a US policy audience, I’m primarily interested in what it reflects back to Europeans on how to create a European Higher Education Area through the Bologna Process.

A casual reader in Europe, and no doubt Bologna officials, will be impressed by Adelman’s many compliments to his European ‘colleagues’. These include: the view that the Bologna Process has such momentum it will become the dominant global higher education model within two decades (p 3); that it has come up with solutions which are extraordinarily relevant to challenges Americans face (p5) on student learning that and, developing from the fact that it has been ‘a highly reflective undertaking’ (p15) that Bologna demonstrates that if you want to reform higher education systems, ‘the smart money should be on cooperation and conversation’ (p16).

But to stop at that would be to miss the point that Adelman’s interest is highly selective. He is an American education policy expert who has now extended his initial enthusiastic essay on the Bologna Process into a weighty report on European higher education ‘reconstruction’ (p16) replete with tables of national responses on the issues where he would like to see America reform, and with an overall country summary of responses in Bologna’s 46 participating countries.  Since he is one who thought that the recent national commission on the future of higher education headed by Margaret Spellings was ‘purblind’, his focus is on what can be done in the US to improve the student learning experience, the effective credentialing that should register this, and access structures for higher education which allow multiple paths to entry.

So Adelman dives for what he sees as the Bologna Process’ conceptual breakthrough in how to define what students have really learned, and the sought- after embedding of a quality culture. This breakthrough, he considers, consists of the intermeshing of five elements: credit systems (the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System or ECTS), the Diploma Supplement providing an individual record, the commitment to learning outcomes (rather than input), qualifications frameworks, and the quality assurance systems which set evaluation standards and guidelines for institutional self assessment and external monitoring, and the glue which links it to the student, the Tuning project. Tuning has worked with faculty across selected disciplines and some vocational training programmes to define the reference points of a curriculum. This project has attracted three American states to try it out because it is not ‘top down’.

This five-piece package is nicely defined by Adelman as Bologna’s ‘accountability loop’.  Underpinned by his generally spirited writing, his view may succeed in convincing Europeans outside the policy development circle that there is logic, and possibly even improvement, in a process which to many in the academic world has seemed fragmented, and/or abstrusely bureaucratic.

adelmancoverAdelman’s reaction to another part of the package agreed will also be to interest Europeans.  His assessment of Bologna’s most famous innovation, the commitment to undergraduate and postgraduate cycles, won’t go down well with all Bologna governments, but is I believe realistic. It is that mobility will become primarily a postgraduate phenomenon and masters, rather than bachelors, the normal exit point for classical university education.  This is a threat for Americans (and incidentally for the English, Welsh and Northern Irish). But though he seems to think undergraduate degrees will turn out to be predominantly three years, his own evidence shows mixed reactions. Most continental countries have restructured their old long degrees into a bachelor/masters of 3+2 or 4+1 years, whereas most UK-EWNI universities offer predominantly 3+1 degrees outside the professionally specialized fields of medicine and engineering, and if they are to get round this bind, will no doubt have to depend on clever marketing.

However a European should not be tempted to treat Adelman as the Bologna Bible. There are many crucial aspects of Bologna outside his range of interests. The main one is that he does not consider universities as research institutions. Yet it is the concept of universities as teaching and research institutions which underpins Europe’s 1200 or so traditional universities, a concept admittedly muddied by the EU’s labeling of most higher institutions as universities whether or not they do research.

Such a comment is not made simply to evoke issues of amour propre in defining what universities are. One of the factors which got the Bologna Process going, in 1998-1999, was the desire by its promoters to get (the main) European universities better recognized globally as scientific institutions in the broadest sense. And this fitted well with the EU aim in an age of globalization to convert its member states to knowledge economies, in which research is naturally one of the keys.

I conclude with two other points. First, despite his references to the 46 countries of Bologna Europe, he has in fact taken an EU-centered view. The 23 major languages referred to are just EU countries. The scale of a European higher education area is defined in terms of EU Commission statistics, that is  4000+ universities and 16 million students. Yet the emerging EHEA is likely to contain somewhere near 25-30 million students since it includes 19 non-EU members, among them Russia and Turkey. Issues of educational, economic and political diversity will be of increasing concern when – or might it be if ?– the Bologna governments declare formally that they have established a European Higher Education Area, the target date for which has recently slipped from 2010 to 2020.

In the second place, although confusing the EU and Bologna Europe (which is actually Council of Europe ‘Europe’) might be a question of interpretation, it is also a political issue. The Bologna Process has been designed so that while guidelines can be created at European level, and political momentum has been, implementation depends on national higher education-government forums.

Before we can talk of an Age of Convergence as Adelman does, we need to know how far the Bologna Process has the assent of all 46 nations to not only put in place Bologna structures, but to implement the qualitative issues evoked here – to make accountability loops work, to make trans-continental social dimension a reality, and to give further dynamic to Europe’s collective research achievements. I personally do not believe that Bologna’s most dramatic achievement will have been to bring students out in the street, whatever current banner waving is going on to smash this ‘neo-liberal’ project. There will be compromises which cloud the structurally pure line Adelman describes.

But that, as they say, is the beginning of another story. We will know a little more about that in the coming days when the 46 ministers and the Bologna stakeholders meet at the Sixth Bologna Conference taking place in the Belgian university towns of Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve on April 28-29.

Anne Corbett

6 thoughts on “A European view of the new Adelman report on the Bologna Process

  1. Pingback: ‘Tuning USA’: reforming higher education in the US, Europe style « GlobalHigherEd

  2. Pingback: Anne Corbett on: “the six to be reckoned with at the Bologna conference” in Leuven this week « GlobalHigherEd

  3. Pingback: Bologna: beyond 2010 and over the Ocean – but where to? On new Bologna Reports and C. Adelman’s last Essay « GlobalHigherEd

  4. Anticipating and responding to many of the Commission’s suggestions in Bologna’s spirit of convergence, the Lumina Foundation’s Making Opportunity Affordable grant program is initiating what appears to date to be the closest U.S. cousin to the Bologna Process, albeit at a statewide level, not at a national level. Eleven states have been competitively selected through a preliminary planning-grant process. Ultimately, up to five of these states will be selected for multi-year implementation grants. The hope is that the MOA states will find a way to converge on some level of common goals and effective practices.

  5. Pingback: TUNING USA: Echos and translations of the Bologna Process in the US higher education landscape « GlobalHigherEd

  6. Pingback: From the big picture to close ups: in Zagreb and Vienna the week the European Higher Education Area was launched « GlobalHigherEd

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