Implementing the Bologna process in Portugal: ‘how can we know the dance from the dancer?’

Editor’s note: This entry on Bologna and Portugal is one of a series of entries examining the role of the Bologna Process in the construction of the European Higher Education Area (see recent entries by Patricia Leon, Per Nyborg and Kris Olds) and exploring the consequences for member states and beyond. antonio-m.jpgToday’s entry has kindly been prepared by Dr. António M. Magalhães, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, Universidade do Porto, Portugal, and Senior Researcher with the Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies (CIPES). Antonio has been carrying out major research and written extensively on higher education governance and its transformation in both Portugal and Europe.

The development of the Bologna process in Portugal must be understood in the context of a tension between the consolidation of mass higher education and quality improvement of the system. Some analysts recognize a clear economic determination at the origin of this process. And, as the European Commission has assumed a leading role in the process, higher education policies closely articulate with the EU strategies – to become in the near future the most competitive and socially consolidated region of the world. Other analysts and institutional leaders stress other dimensions of the process.

In Portugal, by 1974, only about 7% of the relevant age group participated in higher education. After the 1974 Revolution the political stance was one of expanding higher education from an elite status, for both social and economic reasons. These efforts were confronted with a number of paradoxes resulting from the contradiction between equity goals and other factors, such as the economic context, lack of resources, pressures from the World Bank and the IMF, etc.

The public polytechnics and the private sector made a major contribution to the massification of the system. After an almost eightfold increase in enrolments, there has now been a recent decline in this trend, creating a situation of competition for students and new ‘managing’ paradoxes between the need to attract students, quality standards, and institutional identities.

The expansion period has now come to an end. By the mid-1990s, when gross participation rate of the relevant age cohort was over 40%, the government changed its priority from expansion to consolidation, meaning by that it was mainly concerned with the quality of higher education and not greater access.

The system had developed into a network of institutions and study programs that did not seem to answer the governments priorities over more than two decades:

  • increasing the percentage of graduates in areas relevant for the country’s social and economic development;
  • increasing the diversity of higher education provision;
  • ensuring a balanced geographical provision and opening the system to students from all socio-economic backgrounds.

The government elected in 2005 commissioned the ENQA to undertake a review of the Portuguese quality assurance system, asking for advice to set up an accreditation agency following the European standards. It has also commissioned the OECD to do a review of the Portuguese higher education system. The 2006 OECD report that ensued argued that the composition of the tertiary sector is not satisfactory, and considered that, in spite of the present decline in enrolments, the tertiary system still needed to expand by raising the proportion of young cohorts of tertiary entrance age who graduate from secondary school and qualify for admission to higher education, and the proportion of adults seeking tertiary education and accelerating technical change in the production sector that can generate a wage premium for skills that are provided by the graduates of the tertiary sector.

In March 2006 the Portuguese Government also passed a law establishing the legal framework thus making possible the implementation of the Bologna process. Veiga and Amaral (CIPES), in their survey on the implementation of the Bologna process in Portugal, identified an apparently pervasive optimist view.

The leaders of the schools positively evaluated the process of definition of competencies associated with the study programmes and course units, in line with the Ministry’s progress report on the Bologna reforms and with the judgment of the Bologna Follow-up Group which has scored Portugal ‘very good’ performance on the implementation of the EQF. The same went for the evaluation that the leaders of the institutions made about the curricular reform and its impact on students success.

In spite of the fact that there are signs of difficulty for universities in developing vocationally-driven study programs, and difficulties in using the ECTS, the Diploma Supplement, and despite the oblivious attitude of Portuguese HEIs towards the development of the NQF, the general idea was that national and European institutions tended to depict a favourable picture of the policy implementation of the Bologna Process in Portugal.

This positive attitude towards the Bologna Process derives, firstly, from the general features of Portuguese state, institutions, law, social structures and processes derived from the semi-peripheral position of Portugal in the world-system. The symbolic dimension of the state arising from the Portuguese European integration in 1986 was referred to by B. Sousa Santos as ‘the State-as-imagination-of-the-centre’. When translated into the political discourse, it de-legitimises any national policy that goes against European development patterns. Hence, as the European Commission has assumed the leading role in the construction of the EHEA there was no political point to not happily join the Bologna Process.

Secondly, the Bologna process was an opportunity for the government to reorganize its political steering strategies of the sector and for institutions to reshape their ‘survival’ strategies in an increasingly market-driven environment. HEIs have extensively used their autonomy in the last 20 years, though for their own good rather than for the ‘public good’ (which resulted, for instance, in an unbalanced offer of programs, by concentrating on [or disregarding] certain knowledge and training areas, etc.), governments felt the need to steer the systems and its institutions more effectively.

The Bologna reorganization of European higher education provided the occasion for that. In 2007 a new law on higher education governing and governance was passed. The perspective was to reform HEIs governance by challenging collegialism and enhancing forms of ‘boardism’ and the role attributed to external stakeholders. Additionally, the government saw in the Bologna Process an opportunity to, on the one hand, clarify the binary divide of the system by deepening the polytechnic vocational identity and, on the other, an opportunity to re-design the teaching-learning processes in a context of mass higher education.

In the case of public universities, the reason for the positive attitude toward Bologna is that it provides an opportunity to manage some of the paradoxes of mass higher education. By tactically managing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd cycles structures, institutions have been developing their strategies to escape from the lower ‘layers’ resulting from an eventual system segmentation. While accommodating the higher number possible of students they intend not to endanger their position in the divide research-driven institutions versus teaching-driven institutions. Curiously, this very attitude can be found also in the polytechnic sector that apparently finds in the vocational-drift an opportunity to counteract the traditional supremacy of Portuguese universities. According to the survey referred to above, the main goal for institutional leaders is to fulfil the paradigm shift from teaching to learning while mobility and employability are Bologna’s goals assumed by the government.

When trying to characterize the reaction of Portuguese governments and HEIs to the Bologna Process, the verse of a poem by William B. Yeats comes to mind, ‘How can we know the dance from the dancer?’ as its rationale is, one would say, functional to the management of the contradictions and paradoxes of Portuguese mass higher education. However, apparently Portuguese HEIs are singing Bologna’s song but one is not yet sure if they mean what the words mean…

António Magalhães