Brenda Gourley: Shared knowledge gives students a passport to greater success

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The Independent Online

Few members of the general public would have taken any notice of a gathering last month of nearly 600 vice-chancellors and rectors from all over the EU, some EU and country ministers and education officials. And yet, if the goals of the Bologna Process which they were discussing could be achieved, the results would be of enormous interest to an increasingly mobile student body and workforce. They would also have a dramatic effect on some of the institutions in the EU.

The Bologna Process was essentially conceived to turn Europe into one "Higher Education Area", with goals that can be summarised into two main themes: mobility and brand.

Concerning mobility, the goal here is to make degrees and even parts of degrees transferable between institutions in the area - hence making students more mobile and making their degrees capable of being recognised in any part of the geographic area.

Comparable degrees mean we have to have quality assurance systems at institution level, at country level and at an across-the-system level. We also must have a system of transferable credits. These requirements are not intended to force institutions into some rigid, homogeneous degree; indeed the diversity of the system is meant to be one of its key features.

But institutions will have to agree to "outcomes". Weaning some people away from their time-constructed idea of what a degree means (three years or whatever), persuading them about different modes of study (distance, residential) and blurring part-/full-time boundaries will not be so easy.

As for brand, the idea is for the HE Area to promote what is called membership of "the Europe of Knowledge". The success of this brand, which would attach to those institutions that belong would be measured against its goal "for the EU to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion".

This is built on the idea that we can be more than the sum of our parts, that acting together we can build something that individually we cannot.

If we could agree on those things that could be described and guaranteed, it could well constitute a competitive edge in the global marketplace. Not only that, but local students as well as employers of all sorts would be assisted in attaching value to the qualifications of their employees and potential employees. Staff would be better off in the sense of having more opportunities and more mobility.

It is possible that the Open University has a great deal to offer here. It is an institution that is easy to partner with local institutions and produce joint degrees across a large geographic area. It already offers a validation service and it transfers thousands of credits every year. We cannot be creating a system that favours the rich and mobile. What we want is a system whereby all students become more mobile by virtue of their qualifications - which are consistent and compatible across the HE Area. We already know a lot about how to do this and we can extend the possibilities in exciting ways. It is an ambitious project indeed.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor, The Open University