The Bologna process and its implications for education systems in Europe

Ulf Fredriksson

The purpose of this article is to examine the impact the Bologna process is having on other parts of national education systems. The objective of the Bologna process is to create a European Higher Education Area. It is no surprise that a process with this objective will have an impact on higher education, but what changes in higher education will impact on other parts of national education systems.

In May 1998 the Bologna process began with a meeting at the Sorbonne University in Paris for the Ministers of higher education in France, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany to sign the so-called Sorbonne Declaration. The declaration was given the title ”Joint declaration on harmonisation of the architecture of the European higher education system” (Sorbonne declaration, 1998), which focused on:

  • a progressive convergence of the overall framework of degrees and cycles in an open European area for higher education;
  • graduates (Bachelor’s degree) and graduates (Master’s and doctoral degree).
  • enhancing and facilitating student and teacher mobility (students should spend at least one semester abroad); removing obstacles for mobility and improving recognition of degrees and academic qualifications (Sorbonne declaration, 1998).

The Sorbonne Declaration stressed the universities’ central role in developing European cultural dimensions. It emphasised the creation of the European area of higher education as a key way to promote citizens’ mobility and employability and overall development.

On 19 June 1999, 29 European Ministers in charge of higher education signed in Bologna the Declaration to establish the European Area of Higher Education by 2010 and promote the European System of higher education world-wide. The Ministers affirmed in the Bologna Declaration their intention:

  1. Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, also through the implementation of the Diploma Supplement, in order to promote European citizens employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system.
  2. Adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate. Access to the second cycle shall require successful completion of first cycle studies, lasting a minimum of three years. The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The second cycle should lead to the master and/or doctorate degree as in many European countries.
  3. Establishment of a system of credits - such as in the ECTS system - as a proper means of promoting the most widespread student mobility. Credits could also be acquired in non-higher education contexts, including lifelong learning, provided they are recognised by receiving Universities concerned.
  4. Promotion of mobility by overcoming obstacles to the effective exercise of free movement with particular attention to:
    • for students, access to study and training opportunities and to related services
    • for teachers, researchers and administrative staff, recognition and valorisation of periods spent in a European context researching, teaching and training, without prejudicing their statutory rights.
  5. Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies.
  6. Promotion of the necessary European dimensions in higher education, particularly with regards to curricular development, inter-institutional co-operation, mobility schemes and integrated programmes of study, training and research.” (Bologna Declaration, 1999).

Two years after signing the Bologna Declaration, the Ministers in charge of higher education of the 33 European signatory countries met on 19 May 2001 in Prague to follow up the Bologna process to set directions and priorities for the coming years. In the Prague Communiqué (Communiqué of the meeting of European Ministers in charge of Higher Education in Prague on May 19th 2001), the Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the objectives of the Bologna Declaration and emphasised as important elements of the European Higher Education Area:

  • lifelong learning
  • involvement of students
  • enhancing the attractiveness and competitiveness of the European Higher Education Area to other parts of the world (Communiqué of the meeting of European Ministers in charge of Higher Education in Prague, 2001).

The Ministers met again in Berlin in September 2003 to set directions and priorities for the next stages of the process for the European Higher Education Area. In the Communiqué from the conference the ministers committed themselves to a number of actions during the next two years. It was stated that they will “strengthen their efforts to promote effective quality assurance systems, to step up effective use of the system based on two cycles and to improve the recognition system of degrees and periods of study” (p. 3. Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Berlin on 19 September 2003). In order to give the process further momentum the Ministers committed themselves to implement a number of proposals mentioned in the Communiqué during the next two years. It was also decided that a new conference will be held in Bergen, Norway, in May 2005.

This series of meetings and the co-operation between the growing number of countries that have signed the Bologna declaration between the meetings are usually referred to as the Bologna process. In Berlin Ministers from 33 countries were present. In short the major issues taken forward by the Bologna process according to a Eurydice report are:

  • Adopting / general introduction of the model based on two main cycles;
  • Adoption / general introduction ECTS;
  • Strengthening arrangements for greater mobility, particularly through introduction of a Diploma Supplement;
  • Developing measures designed to quality evaluation;
  • Supporting measures to encourage lifelong learning. (p. 9, Eurydice, 2003)

Behind the Bologna process

As can be seen in the official declarations and communiqués from Sorbonne, Bologna, Prague and Berlin there is a wish to create what is referred to as a European Higher Education Area as well as a European Research Area. Reasons for this may be a belief in Europe and a wish to bring the universities in Europe closer together, but it should also be taken into consideration that there is a growing international education market where European universities are fighting mainly with American universities to attract foreign students.

The overall market for foreign students in tertiary education corresponded in 1999 to 3% of the total trade in services in OECD countries (Larsen, Martin & Morris, 2002). The number of foreign students enrolled in tertiary education in OECD countries has doubled over the past 20 years (OECD, 2002). OECD also observes a change in the rationale for student mobility.: “Since the early 1950s, a number of OECD countries have encouraged their nationals to travel abroad to study, and have themselves hosted overseas students. Initially this was done for primarily cultural and political reasons, including assistance to developing countries. More recently, the motivation in some countries has been more concerned with increasing revenues from the export of educational services, although policies towards overseas students generally serve multiple objectives.” (OECD, 2002, p. 93).

This type of trade in education has mainly been related to students in tertiary education, but there are also countries where this trade include students in secondary education. In New Zealand, there are a growing number of foreign students in all parts of the education system (Rosenberg, 2003).

Another aspect of the international education market is the growing number of offshore campuses and distance-learning programmes supported by the development of information and communication technologies (ICT). There is much less information on this aspect of the international education “market” (Larsen, Martin & Morris, 2002). According to OECD (2002), Australia is increasingly delivering education in other countries: “between 1996 and 2001, such ‘offshore’ enrolments increased from 24% to 37% of all international students enrolled in Australian institutions” (p.103). Also the United Kingdom is a major provider of courses overseas. In 1996-97, there were around 140,000 students enrolled in British institutions overseas, compared with around 200,000 international students in the United Kingdom at the same year (Bennell and Pearce, 1998).

The increase of trade in education creates several policy challenges. In an article in the OECD publication “Education Policy Analysis”(2002) some of these challenges are raised. “There is (...) a general lack of transparency in the international education market in the sense that students sometimes have difficulties in assessing whether a course offered by a foreign education provider is of good quality or not. Furthermore, it is often not self-evident for students studying abroad that their qualifications will automatically be recognised in their home country. This puts the issue of international quality assurance and accreditation high on the policy agenda.” (p. 109)

The emerging international education market should be seen in the light of GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services). GATS, was concluded by the member countries of the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 1994. Through GATS, the WTO has instituted a general framework and an agenda intended to progressively liberalise international trade in services, and this includes education services. What the long-term impact of GATS on education may be is an open question, but the fact that education is seen as part of international trade certainly opens new perspectives on development in education (Fredriksson, 2004).

Still another development important to keep in mind when the Bologna process is discussed is the generally increased interest in education of the European Union in recent years. At the Lisbon European Council on 23-24 March 2000, the heads of states and governments of the European Union member countries, in response to the challenges of globalisation and the information society, set out a new strategic objective for the coming decade; “Becoming 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” (Lisbon European Council: Presidency Conclusions, Paragraph 5). Conclusions from the Lisbon summit continued with a number of recommendations on what to do in order to reach the strategic goal. The conclusions talked about completing the internal market and the application of an appropriate macro-economic policy mix. In addition to traditional economic measures, the need to invest in people was also mentioned (Lisbon European Council: Presidency Conclusions, paragraph 5). What this could mean was further developed under the headline “Education and training for living and working in the knowledge society”. Under this headline, a series of measures related to Europe’s education and training systems was mentioned. For the first time in the history of EU summits, education and training was described as a major tool for implementing a strategic goal. In order to implement the measures related to education in what is often referred to as the Lisbon-strategy three main avenues can be observed (Fredriksson, 2003); the Bologna process concerning higher education, the Copenhagen process concerning vocational education and training (European Commission, 2002, 2003) and “The detailed work-programme on the follow-up of the objectives of education and training systems in Europe” concerning mainly primary and secondary education (Council of the European Union, 2001, 2002).

Higher education and its relation to other parts of the education system

In the beginning of this article the question how changes in higher education may have an impact on other parts of the education system was raised. Generally education is regarded as a system where the different levels affect each other. An obvious example of the ways in which different levels affect each other is the simple fact that students in higher education have earlier been students in secondary education and before they got into secondary education they have been in primary education and early childhood education. This may be interpreted in terms of a pyramid, where every stage is preparing the students for the next stage. There are many reasons to object to such a simplistic approach. All secondary students will not get into higher education, but on the other hand almost all students in higher education have been in secondary education. What the students learn in secondary education will decide on what level they can continue to learn in higher education. This can also be seen the other way around, higher education will set a standard for what secondary education is supposed to achieve. Related to this is also the kind of selection process that takes place between secondary and higher education. Some countries may have more or less open access to higher education in the meaning that all students who have followed certain tracks in secondary education are qualified to higher education. In those cases there is usually a kind of selection process within the higher education systems. Other countries have some kind of process where selection is based on entrance exams or grades from secondary education.

Another obvious link between higher education and the education system in general is that those who teach in all levels of the education system have received their education in higher education institutions. Teacher education is in most countries part of the higher education system. At least two ways in which higher education has an impact on other parts of the education system can be identified;

  • setting standards for the education system as a whole through, among other things, the selection process for admitting students to higher education; and
  • teacher education.

The Bologna process and its impact on national education systems

Will the Bologna process affect those elements of higher education which have an impact on other parts of the education system? If we begin with the selection process it is important to note that a central part of the ideas behind the Bologna process is to promote student mobility. One way to do this is to make it possible for students who have received higher education in one country to get their education recognised in another country. A major tool to facilitate this is the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). What ECTS is will be explained below as well as the impact this system may have on the education system as a whole.

Does the Bologna process relate to teacher education? To answer this question it may be necessary first to examine whether teacher education is a part of higher education.

Does the Bologna process relate to teacher education? To answer this question it may be necessary first to examine whether teacher education is a part of higher education. An old and much debated question is whether teacher education should take place in universities or in teacher training colleges. Reforms in the Nordic countries have led to the integration of former teacher training colleges into universities. France has dealt with similar issues by introducing the IUFM (Instituts universitaires de formation de maître) where all teachers follow some joint programmes and then gradually specialise in different levels in the education system. Generally the trend has been to move all types of teacher education into tertiary education (Eurydice, 2002a). In many cases this has meant that teacher training colleges have become departments within universities, but in some countries they have continued as separate tertiary institutions. It seems fairly clear that teacher education in most European countries is a part of higher education (Zgaga, 2003). This means that most changes within higher education in general will affect the structure of teacher education.

ECTS and national systems for grading

ECTS is a tool to facilitate the mobility of students in higher education, a system for credit transfer and accumulation of credits. It “is a student-centred system based on the student workload required to achieve the objectives of a programme, objectives preferably specified in terms of learning outcomes and competences to be acquired” (European Commission, 2004).

The workload is calculated on the basis that a full-time study programme amounts in most cases to between 36 and 40 weeks per year. This corresponds to 60 credits in ECTS. The learning outcomes are measured on what is referred to as “statistical data on student performance” (European Commission, 2004). Students who have passed are assigned grades as follows: A best 10%, B next 25%, C next 30%, D next 25% and E next 10%. A distinction is also made between the grades FX and F for those students who have not passed. FX means: “fail- some more work required to pass” and F means: “fail – considerable further work required” (European Commission, 2004).

The Berlin Conference stated that ECTS plays an important role “in facilitating students mobility and international curriculum development” (p. 5 Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Berlin on September 2003). The Ministers also “encouraged further progress with the goal that the ECTS becomes not only a transfer but also an accumulation system, to be applied consistently as it develops within the emerging European Higher Education Area” (p. 5 Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Berlin on September 2003).

ECTS is described as a statistical method to transfer grades which have been assigned in accordance to a country’s national grading system into the ECTS grades. There is no demand on counties to change their grading system, but if ECTS will be commonly used in higher education it is questionable for how long time universities will continue to have two parallel systems for grading. National grades are in most countries based on what is referred to as ”criterion-referenced assessment”, while ECTS is a kind of ”norm-referenced assessment”. Criterion-referenced assessment means that each grade corresponds to certain criteria which the student has to meet in order to get that grade. Norm-referenced assessment means that a certain percentage of the students get a certain grade, independently of what they have achieved, or that grades are expressed as position in relation to other students in the same course (Biggs, 2003).

It is not easy to transfer grades based on one type of assessment to grades based on a totally different type of assessment. Instead of trying to convert apples into bananas universities may be tempted to only use what is seen as a recognised and more prestigious European grading system. The fact that the students will have the right in many systems to demand to get ECTS grades will be one more strong argument to focus on these grades and forget about other types of grading. According to Eurydice (2003) “ECTS is now operational or in the process of being introduced in the great majority of countries, with the exception of Belgium in its German-speaking Community, Luxembourg and Portugal” (p. 12). Zgaga (2003) notes in his survey on how teacher education institutions have adjusted to the Bologna process that “ECTS seems to reach majority of responding institutions and that many of them already award degrees, at least partly, on basis of credits” (p. 34). The Swedish Ministry of Education has proposed that ECTS grades should be made mandatory for universities, but that they should be used based on criterion-referenced assessment (Utbildningsdepartementet, 2004). What this will mean in reality is still to be seen, but it certainly shows the willingness to adjust to the ECTS system.

The idea behind ECTS is to make it easier for students in higher education to move between universities in different countries and to get their degrees recognised on a European level. The number of students studying in a country other than their country of birth is growing. There is also a growing interest among parents to look for secondary and even primary education for their children in other countries. As ECTS will be more and more used to measure student outcomes in higher education it will certainly be interesting for secondary education to explore whether they can use the same system or not. If a student after having completed secondary education in country A applies for admission to a programme at a university in country B where grades from secondary education will determine who is admitted to the programme, it may be tempting to use ECTS grades to regulate this. If this happens it is likely that ECTS grades will gradually become more frequently used in secondary education and perhaps also later on in primary education.

Is the development described above a likely development or is it just a theoretically possible scenario? There are at least two things that need to happen to make this development likely. First, there must be a growing number of students who after completing secondary education will decide to continue their education in foreign universities. Second, the intake to higher education must be limited and access to a place in certain programmes must be given based on grades from secondary education. There is an increasing number of foreign students in most parts of the world. Knowing this, it does not seem unlikely that many young people in the years to come will be interested to seek admission to foreign universities immediately after secondary education. In most countries in Europe admission to the first stages of higher education is more or less open for all students who meet certain basic criteria, basically completed secondary education within certain academic tracks. Whether the grades are good or bad do not seem to be important. An increased pressure on higher education may force universities to find ways of reducing or limiting the intake of students.

Even if the development described above will not take place we may still see a development where ECTS grades will be used in other parts of the education system. If universities increasingly use the ECTS grades it may be tempting for school reformers to argue that a system that is considered good for the universities is also good enough for secondary education. It could even be argued that if all students who continue to higher education will have to learn to cope with ECTS grades it may be good for them to learn this already in secondary education and if they have to learn to live with it in secondary education, you may also use those grades already in primary education.

ECTS grades are said to be only “statistical data on student performance” (European Commission, 2004), but the fact that higher education is a part of the whole education system and because of the prestige of higher education the impact could be much bigger than originally anticipated. If that would be the case it would mean, not only that Europe would move towards a unified grading system, but also that most countries would move away from criterion-referenced assessment towards norm-referenced assessment. Many of those who have been studying higher education have regarded norm-referenced assessment critically and argued that criteria-referenced assessment has a much better influence on teaching and student motivation. For a country like Sweden a move towards a grading system based on norm-referenced assessment and several grade levels would mean a turning point in the development during the last thirty years. It would mean a move away from a system where the importance of grades gradually has decreased, both in the meaning of the number of occasions grades are given and the number of different grade levels. Instead it may be a first step towards a system where a new type of gradesis given increased importance.

Teacher Education

The problem with the adjustment of teacher education to the Bologna process is related to the length of teacher education. The length of teacher pre-service education varies between countries and between different types of teacher education. For primary teachers, it varies from three years in Austria, Belgium, Iceland, Ireland and Spain to five years or more in Finland, France and Germany. The teacher education for teachers in lower secondary education varies from four years in Belgium (Flanders) and Iceland to six years and more in Italy and Spain. The education of teachers for upper secondary education varies from three years in Belgium to six years or more in Germany and Italy (OECD, 2003). The general trend has been that the period of study required to become a teacher has been extended in almost all countries (Eurydice, 2002a).

One of the objectives of the Bologna process is to establish a degree structure essentially based on two main cycles. In the Bologna declaration it was stated that the intention is to establish an undergraduate cycle and a graduate cycle. “Access to the second cycle shall require successful completion of first cycle studies, lasting a minimum of three years. The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The second cycle should lead to the master and/or doctorate degree as in many European countries” (Bologna Declaration, 1999). If teacher education should be fitted in to this structure it may have two implications. Firstly, teacher education must be divided into two cycles. Secondly, completion of the first cycle should be regarded as “relevant to the European labour market” (Bologna Declaration, 1999). If the first cycle should be about three years that would mean that those who have completed this cycle must be able to get jobs.

What would this mean for teacher education? First of all it would put an end to the present trend to expand the period of study required to become a teacher. It will also raise the question about undergraduate and graduate cycles in teacher education. All teacher students will have to get through the first cycle and will then have access to the labour market. There are many ways in which this could be organised. Basically it may be possible to identify three options;

  1. The first cycle will give a kind of basic teacher education, which will allow students to apply for positions as teachers after completed undergraduate education. The second cycle will be regarded as an of additional, but not necessary, education for teachers. New positions, with higher salaries or different duties, could be constructed for those teachers who have completed the second cycle.
  2. The first cycle will prepare students to become primary teachers. The second cycle is a preparation to become secondary teacher. All teachers will need qualifications to become a primary teacher and those who would like to have the qualifications to work as secondary teacher will have to continue their education or to come back to the university after some years for additional education.
  3. The first cycle will focus on the subject areas a teacher will have to master. After having a degree in the subjects necessary to become a primary or secondary teacher you will have the opportunity to work as a teacher. The second cycle will focus on specific skills and knowledge related to teaching.

None of these options seem very attractive. In option a) and c) two types of teachers will actually be available on the labour market. It seems reasonable that those teachers with a higher qualification should be better paid, but this may have consequences for their attractiveness of the labour market. The hiring procedures used in different countries in Europe can be described as either centralised or decentralised recruitment (Eurydice, 2002b). The tendency seems to be to move towards decentralised recruitment. If schools or municipalities are responsible for hiring teachers and at the same time have to stick to rather narrow budget frames, the interest to hire more expensive teachers may be rather limited. In a country like Sweden, with a very decentralised system for hiring teachers, a large number of municipalities do not even bother to look for qualified teachers. Instead they hire persons without any teacher education (Lärarförbundet / Lärarnas Riksförbund, 2004). Experiences from New Zealand also shows that local schools who had to hire teachers and had the full responsibility for the total budget of the school, including teacher salaries, tended to prefer inexperienced and cheap teachers instead of experienced and more expensive teachers (Monteith, 2003). If a majority of European teachers in the future will only have completed the first cycle of higher education this would in fact mean that the general qualification of the teaching profession in Europe tomorrow will be lower than today.

Option b) does not seem to be a very likely option. It could be argued that it may be good for all teachers in secondary education to know about primary education, but it would be difficult to recruit secondary teachers if the only way to get the necessary qualifications would pass over an education as primary teacher.

Option c) would mean a major turn in present trends away from what has been described as a consecutive model of teacher education towards what is referred to as a concurrent model. In the concurrent model subject knowledge and more specific teacher related knowledge are dealt with at more or less the same time. In the consecutive model, the two issues are studied at different stages in the education. Usually you start with the subjects and then continue with the more teacher specific issues (Eurydice, 2002a).

Physicians and engineers have already raised similar concerns about their education as those raised in this article concerning teacher education. It seems difficult to picture how the education to become a physician could be split up in two cycles and even more difficult to imagine what kind of job those who have only completed the first cycle should have. Actually courses in medicine in most countries are provided in a single cycle lasting five to six years (p. 11, Eurydice 2003). It is tempting to believe that the architects behind the Bologna process have not fully realised that there is a large number of students at universities who do not follow what could be referred to as traditional academic programmes. An increasing number of universities are offering what could be described as a mixture of vocationally oriented programmes and academic programmes. The distinction between what traditionally in ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education) terms has been classified as academic programmes of an essentially theoretically nature (ISCED level 5A) and vocational programmes with a practical emphasis (ISCED level 5B) “is becoming increasingly blurred” (p. 11, Eurydice 2003). The objectives of the Bologna process aim at changing the traditional education at universities, but there does not seem to have been much reflection on how partially vocationally oriented programmes within the universities may fit into this pattern.

Zgaga (2003) notes in his survey on how teacher education institutions have adjusted to the Bologna process that a majority of the institutions that participated in the survey had “already started – or they plan to do it in the near future – with the implementation of the two-cycle system at the institutional level” (p. 33). If teacher education will be forced to fit into the Bologna process without any adjustments, such a development may lead to shorter education of the teachers in Europe and a teacher education that is to a lesser extent mixing theory and practice than the education offered in most countries today.

Some conclusions

The Bologna process focuses on:

  • a progressive convergence of the overall framework of degrees and cycles in an open European area for higher education;
  • a common degree level system for undergraduates (Bachelor’s degree) and graduates (Master’s and Doctoral degree); and
  • enhancing and facilitating student and teacher mobility (students should spend at least one semester abroad); removing obstacles for mobility and improving recognition of degrees and academic qualifications.

A driving force behind the process is an idea about increased European cooperation and mobility in higher education, but it can not be excluded that the development towards an international education market has had an impact on this process. GATS and the emerging international education market must be seen in relation to the Bologna process. There are also good reasons to regard the Bologna process in the context of an increased interest in education within the European Union.

ECTS is a system for credit transfer and accumulation of credits based on the student workload and learning outcomes. A year full-time study programme corresponds to 60 credits in ECTS. The learning outcomes are measured on a scale with five grades. Students who have passed are assigned grades as follows: A best 10%, B next 25%, C next 30%, D next 25% and E next 10%. A distinction is also made between the grades FX and F for those students who have not passed. Under certain circumstances it can be assumed that this grading system may be regarded as a model for grading not only in higher education, but also in secondary education and perhaps even later on in primary education. If that would be the case it would mean, not only that Europe would move towards a unified grading system, but also that most countries would move away from criterion-referenced assessment towards norm-referenced assessment.

Teacher education is in most countries part of higher education and as such subject to the changes aimed at in the Bologna process. Concerns related to the Bologna process in relation to teacher education are related to the following sentence in the Bologna declaration: ”The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification” (Bologna Declaration, 1999). Translated into teacher education this could be interpreted as a measure which will provide teacher students with a teacher qualification after the first cycle (three years) and that additional studies would just be a matter getting further qualifications. If this would be the case, large parts of teacher education in Europe would have to be restructured and in many cases even shortened.

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Ulf Fredriksson Senior lecturer
Department of Educational Science
Mid Sweden University.
ulf.fredriksson@miun.se