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News vom 10.07.2006

Bologna process contributes little to convergence, but triggers serious national reforms

CHE and CHEPS present international comparison of reform of higher education degree structures in Europe.

The Bologna process has so far contributed little to the convergence of European higher education systems, but has supported important national reforms. This is a key result of an international comparative doctoral study of the Bologna process conducted by Johanna Witte at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) of Twente University. In a detailed analysis, the author compares the changes of degree structures and concomitant adaptations of the higher education systems of Germany, the Netherlands and France between 1998 and 2004, with England as a reference country. The doctoral thesis shows how the national starting points, interests, perceptions and competencies of actors differ and explains the nature and degree of change. In addition to the reform of degree structures as such – known in many countries as the introduction of the Bachelor-Master-structure – the study investigates how this affects the relationship between different types of higher education institutions, the forms of quality assurance, curricular conceptions, access to higher education, graduates’ transition to the labour market and the funding of degree programmes.

A central proposition of this study is that the introduction of the two-cycle degree structure is used by the participating countries for far-reaching reforms of their higher education systems as a whole. International trends serve as important arguments for national reforms. These are however often based on misunderstandings. For example, accreditation was introduced as an “Anglo-Saxon” system, although it plays hardly any role in English higher education. A lot of significance is attached to defining degree titles such as “BA” or “MSc” in national debates, although there are no common definitions internationally. If the Bologna process is to lead to the convergence of higher education landscapes in Europe, the international dialogue needs to be intensified at all levels. “We cannot do without making a serious effort to understand our neighbouring countries”, says Johanna Witte. Concretely, this means: It is not sufficient if always the same handful of people participates in the European “Bologna meetings”, the international exchange on higher education reform needs to be broadened. The ministers responsible for higher education in the Bologna signatory countries should re-establish a closer dialogue, also beyond the official bi-annual conferences. The art of good higher education policy itself could become an issue of exchange, as the way higher education policy is done varies enormously between countries.

To give an example, the results for Germany show that the most ambitious reforms are planned as far as content is concerned while implementation policy is more hesitant than in other countries. Among the far-reaching political decisions is that that the Bachelor degree at universities is defined as qualifying for the labour market, that access to the Masters level is selective and that degrees from universities and Fachhochschulen are formally equated.

At the same time, no formally binding decision has been taken so far at national level to make the full transition to the Bachelor-Master structure, only a declaration of intent by the Standing Conference of responsible Länder ministers (KMK) has been passed. While more or less all Länder aim for the transition by 2010, the picture remains confused. The involvement of stakeholders such as higher education institutions, students and employers has been rather weak in international comparison. The study shows that the incremental decision making at federal level and in the KMK has supported far-reaching reform measures as far as the content of reforms is concerned while it has impeded the development of a national consensus on the transition.

The study is relevant for researchers of higher education studies and comparative policy as well as for policy makers and practitioners involved in the Bologna reforms. It gives in-depth insight into the policy processes behind these reforms and provides empirically-founded arguments for those seeking to contribute to the future course of developments.

The book „Change of degrees and degrees of change: comparing adaptations of European higher education systems in the context of the Bologna process“ can be ordered for 25€ + VAT + postage at CHEPS (Gillian Loche, g.loche-luisman@bbt.utwente.nl) and downloaded free of charge.


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