European Higher Education Area

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Introduction

In June 1999, 31 European ministers responsible for higher education from 29 countries signed the Bologna Declaration. This document would set in motion the so-called Bologna Process intended to create the European Higher Education Area.

This European Higher Education Area is not an entirely new concept. For centuries since the establishment of the first universities in the middle ages, Europe could have been considered such a higher education area. Several characteristics of that area are aimed for by the Bologna Process. Cooperation across borders, shorter programmes facilitating mobility and study and teaching opportunities at several institutions in different countries. The best-known example is of course Erasmus, the wandering scholar whose biography resembles a travel guide to the most important university cities of the end of the the middle ages. Additionally, European academics used to have their lingua franca for several centuries: Latin.

The beginning

In 1998, four countries set Europe on a course towards the Bologna Declaration: France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. At the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the Sorbonne University, they signed the Sorbonne Declaration calling for the harmonisation of European higher education. They invited other countries to join forces and to commit themselves. In 1999, at the occasion of the anniversary of the Bologna University, European ministers responsible for higher education (or their representatives) gathered to discuss and eventually sign a document called the European Higher Education Area. Now, the document is referred to as the Bologna Declaration.

The Bologna Declaration

The Bologna Declaration is not a treaty. National or regional parliaments where not asked to ratify the document. As such, the document is not binding for the signatory countries. (This is however not entirely the case for the members of the European Union, but this would lead us to far.)

However, the Bologna Declaration is not a political statement. The document puts forward an actual action programme with the following policy lines.

Common goal

The creation of a coherent European Higher Education Area as a means:

To improve the international competitiveness and attractiveness of European higher education in the world To ensure mobility and employability

Deadline

Establishment of the European Higher Education Area within the first decade of the third millennium (2010)

Set of specific objectives

  • Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, also through the implementation of the Diploma Supplement
  • 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
  • Establishment of a system of credits 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
  • Promotion of mobility by overcoming obstacles to the effective exercise of free movement
  • Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies.
  • 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.

The Bologna Process

The (joint) effort set in motion to reach the common goals and the specific objectives is called the Bologna Process. The Bologna Process is an intergovernmental process “managed” by the Bologna Follow-Up Group. This Group consists of representatives of the (accepted) signatory countries and observers. The observers are mainly representative organisations of the stakeholders (institutions, students, teachers, professional field).

In order to gain and maintain momentum, ministers responsible for higher education have met and meet every two years. At these ministerial meetings they evaluate the process, stress specific elements of the work plan, accept proposed agreements/documents and add new objectives to the process. They do this via Ministerial Communiqués.

In this way, the additional objectives were formulated and now the process is organised along the following action lines:

  • Qualifications Frameworks / Three-Cycle System
  • Mobility
  • Quality Assurance
  • Employability
  • EHEA in a global context
  • Joint Degrees
  • Recognition
  • Social Dimension
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Stocktaking