Harmony in Europe?

British academics are worried about a European agreement to harmonise degree systems. Will the Bologna Accord put in jeopardy our lucrative one-year Masters? Lucy Hodges reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bologna is a lovely town in northern Italy famous for mortadella sausage and for having the oldest university in Europe. But in the minds of many British academics it is associated with a scary European agreement which threatens to change the face of higher education throughout Europe.

Bologna is a lovely town in northern Italy famous for mortadella sausage and for having the oldest university in Europe. But in the minds of many British academics it is associated with a scary European agreement which threatens to change the face of higher education throughout Europe.

Like the Euro currency, Bologna seeks to unite different higher education systems under one umbrella. The UK government has signed up, so the expectation is that we will harmonise our degree system with those of 39 other states in Europe by 2010.

British academics are worried about the effect this might have, particularly on our lucrative overseas market for Masters students. The Bologna Process, as it is called, establishes a single, Europe-wide degree structure for bachelors, Masters and PhDs. Although it does not set in stone the number of years students should spend completing these degrees, most countries are interpreting it as three years for a first degree, two years for a Masters, and three years for a doctorate.

The problem is that the UK Masters degree usually lasts only one year. "If the two-year Masters were to become the standard, people are concerned that the UK Masters might appear rather lightweight and inferior," says Roger Duclaud Williams, a politics lecturer at Warwick University. "In a competitive situation we might come out at a disadvantage because our degrees would look substandard."

That matters to British universities because they earn so much from the one-year Masters. In fact, the overseas student market depends on this one-year degree. It is regarded as the only profitable bit of higher education in the United Kingdom, luring students from China, India, Malaysia as well as the United States, Australia and Canada to read for degrees in anything from media studies to engineering. If it were put in jeopardy, we might begin to lose the £4bn in foreign earnings which overseas students bring in. Moreover, the financial health of British universities might be put at risk.

The students come for the high-quality higher education that Britain has developed a name for and the short completion time. Financially, the British Masters makes sense for them because one year's study is cheaper than two years. But if it were to be threatened, overseas students might prefer to go to France, Germany or elsewhere.

British academics are concerned that we may be forced to move to the two-year Masters degree over time. "If that did happen, it would present a significant problem because we would lose the competitive advantage we get from the one-year degree," says Professor Howard Green, chairman of the UK Council for Graduate Education.

Universities UK, the umbrella body for higher education in Britain, has been arguing during the labyrinthine negotiations that the skills and competences students acquire while getting a British Masters degree are as important, if not more so, as the time spent studying for a degree. That approach has been increasingly well received on the Continent, says Tish Bourke, manager of UUK's Europe Unit.

But there are some other aspects of Bologna that worry British academics. One is the idea that it will mean all countries in Europe eventually having to follow a standard core curriculum in each subject. Paul Furlong, professor of politics at Cardiff University and an expert on Europe, believes it could be a logical consequence of harmonising teaching times and degree frameworks and having a Europe-wide system of credits to enable students to be mobile. In fact, the Political Studies Association in Europe has already produced its own core curriculum because it was anxious that some "bureaucrat in a ministry of state" might come up with one instead. "It was a defence of the profession," explains Professor Furlong.

All of which makes Bologna begin to seem rather frightening because it would infringe the autonomy that British universities guard so jealously. Are these academics imagining things? According to Professor Furlong, the processes now in motion make it difficult for people to resist. "Big changes are afoot," he says. "These things (the harmonisation of degree courses) are going to be happening first in subjects where there is significant input from professional associations, for example, in engineering and pharmacy."

But the fact is that none of the Bologna requirements are being forced on the United Kingdom. Bologna arises from an inter-ministerial initiative and the European Commission has been largely kept out. That means it works by voluntary agreement rather than diktat. Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), has pointed that out in a statement on the QAA website. Under the heading "Spaghetti Bolognese", he suggests that people are panicking unnecessarily. The only commitment with direct implications for British higher education is that all graduates will, from this year, be entitled to receive a diploma supplement, which will list what they have achieved, he says. Williams' statement has upset the Europhiles because of its tone, which they see as essentially unfriendly towards Europe.

But although there is plenty of hostility from British academics towards Bologna, there are also those who are very keen on the accord. One is Anne Corbett, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, who sees it as an exciting opportunity to open up Europe's higher education. She thinks it will create a bigger marketplace for Masters degrees taught in English as Continental universities pile in to compete with the British. She hopes it will result in less arrogance towards Europe. "Bologna is vitally important for the rediscovery of the intellectual richness of Europe," she adds. "But one thing is certain, it will have some unexpected results."

Another supporter is John Reilly, who runs the Socrates Erasmus EU exchange programme. He believes that Britain cannot afford to ignore what is going on in the rest of Europe. The creation of European bursaries for students from outside Europe in the Erasmus Mundus programme means that it is in the UK's interests to be a part of what is going on across the Channel. With the European Commission about to give another €100m in grants to Erasmus Mundus students from Asian countries, it pays to be signed up to agreements like Bologna.

Whatever some British academics might like, there is little doubt that the United Kingdom will have to play its part in the process. The shame, many people feel, is that the government has been so slow to do this. Malcolm Cook, professor of French at Exeter University, who is what is known as a Bologna promoter, says: "It would be much better if the government had said, 'These are the guidelines, this is the ambition and this is what the universities should be aiming for'."

As it is, the government has been lying pretty doggo. It has been left to Universities UK through its Europe Unit to slay some of the myths and put out information about the accord. But the fact that the government has chosen to say so little has meant that misunderstandings and rumours have flourished. "The United Kingdom has not engaged in the topic well enough," says Dr Janet Metcalfe, director of the UK GRAD programme. "We are ignoring it, rather than thinking about the consequences and it's getting very late for the country to influence the outcome."

Professor Gareth Williams, of the University of London's Institute of Education, has done some research into British perceptions of Bologna and found that few university senates or councils have discussed the subject. Education Secretary Charles Clarke didn't mention it in his White Paper on higher education last year. But as the Bologna process gathers momentum, the government and higher education generally will have to get stuck in, says Professor Ivor Crewe, president of UUK. Who knows? We might find it gives British universities new opportunities.


What is the Bologna process?

It's an agreement dating from 1999 to establish a European Higher Education Area by 2010. It would lay down a single system of degrees, which would be comparable through an agreed framework and credit mechanism.

Why was it introduced?

Principally to improve mobility in Europe and to enable students, teachers and researchers to move from one country to another to work and study.

Why are the Brits so worked up about it?

Because it is unfamiliar and seeks to harmonise differing higher education systems. The way this is being interpreted in most European countries is to establish a three-year undergraduate degree, a two-year masters and a three-year doctorate. We are particularly worried about the effect on our one-year master's degree which is a big draw for overseas students from countries such as China, India and Malaysia. If we were forced to abandon our one-year masters we would lose our competitive edge in the overseas student market, many academics believe.

Will we be able to ignore the bits of Bologna we don't like?

Probably not. UUK and other bodies say that Bologna allows us to keep our one-year masters because it does not lay down the length of a masters. But many experts believe that we may be forced to come into line eventually because the two-year masters will become the norm. It is certainly the standard being pursued by countries offering masters degrees under the new Erasmus Mundus programme. We may find it is in our interest take part.