Mario Levis: While Europe reforms its higher education systems, the UK must not be complacent

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The Independent Online

The Bologna Accord will mean different things to different schools depending on their position in the marketplace, but it will have very significant implications for business education throughout Europe, the UK and the rest of the world. The structure and timing of degrees is to be harmonised across 41 countries in Europe, with Bachelors degrees taking three years to complete and Masters degrees taking one or two years to complete. As Europe prides itself on high standards in teaching and learning at all stages, the prime objective for many countries will be the preservation of quality in degree courses that will be shorter in length.

Along with the creation of a common quality assurance system, Europe is likely to see a massive increase in students crossing borders to study business, which will also have social and employment implications. The number and variety of courses is expected to expand - a recent expert report estimates that there will be 12,000 new degrees on offer in management education alone. A key question is how quickly student mobility will increase, with students considering a change of subject, University and country when, on completing their first degree, they make the switch to Masters. A further change is that more postgraduate qualifications across Europe will be taught in English, a trend that, in fact, has already begun.

These changes will present challenges to employers, who will be faced with cohorts of students thinking of entering the job market after their Bachelor's degrees, which will now be shorter than previously. Similarly, in some countries, employers will need to adjust to students seeking employment after their Masters qualifications. Clearly, there will need to be good communication between business schools and employers to ensure that the needs of employers, in terms of the knowledge and skills acquired by graduates, for example, are reflected in the new curricula.

Germany, for example, makes an interesting case study for four reasons. The situation in Germany is complicated because there is a dialogue between the Federal States and political alliances, and between Federal States and universities. Secondly, the much publicised result of the Accord will be the increased mobility of students in Europe. In geographical terms, Germany is at a central point on the continent, and an influx of students will not only have educational implications, but social implications as well. Furthermore, Germany prides itself on high standards in teaching and learning that are maintained at all stages. At undergraduate level, this takes place over a minimum period of four and a half years. Following on from the Bologna Accord, the concern is the preservation of high standards in a condensed qualification.

However, some business schools are blurring the established difference between MBAs and Masters programmes by not clearly defining the level of work experience needed to qualify for each. Work experience is imperative prior to doing an MBA, but requirements can vary according to the individual and the institution. Some German schools require only two or three years work experience, whereas at Cass, our students have an average of nine years' work experience prior to beginning an MBA. So, the experience required by the German programmes is comparable to that which many of our MSc students would have.

At Cass, we have set up the Bologna Task Force to help us understand the full impact that the Accord will have on the way in which our Business School operates in the European and international markets, and to develop strategies that will enable the School to respond effectively to the consequent changes. It will ensure that when the time comes, we will be able to harmonise our programmes as easily as possible. We offer the largest portfolio of specialist Masters programmes in Europe, and each programme is tailored to the needs of businesses and a career. We believe that these specialist programmes will continue to be a major factor in maintaining our competitiveness in the future. In addition, we seek to continue to improve the quality of our students and programmes (including selected collaborations with European business schools) and to climb the international league tables. One thing that Bologna will mean for us is a bigger pool of potential students from which to recruit the best - which can't be bad.

In some respects UK business schools have a slight advantage in that it appears that the rest of Europe, and possibly the rest of the world, will be falling in line with the UK model. However, the UK cannot afford to be complacent as Scandinavia, Benelux and Switzerland are leading with reforming their HE systems, and furthermore, access to new markets will mean increased competition, particularly in Masters programmes.

Mario Levis is Professor of Finance and Associate Dean, MSc Programmes, Cass Business School