Higher education in Europe

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European higher education used to be known for its very diverse national systems. Now, it is characterised by the Bologna Process, the process that established the European Higher Education Area.

This has lead to an increase in programmes taught in English, to internationally recognisable higher education structures and to transparent quality assurance measures.

The European Higher Education Area should in fact be identifiable by its transparency, by its comparable degrees organised in a three-cycle structure, by its cooperation in quality assurance and by its mutual recognition of degrees. This in order to allow unhampered mobility to students, graduates and higher education staff.

Below you can find information regarding the most important characteristics, tools and formal agreements that shape European higher education.

European degrees and qualifications

Degree structure of the European Higher Education AreaEuropean higher education is organised in three sequential levels or cycles: the so-called Bachelor-Master-Doctor system. This means that students first complete a Bachelor's programme, the first cycle, and with that Bachelor's degree they can be admitted to a Master's programme, the second cycle. The third cycle is the Doctoral programme.

European degrees are linked to the overarching framework of qualifications of the European Higher Education Area. This is the framework agreed upon by 46 European countries and describes what students should know, understand and be able to do in order to graduate in a certain programme. The aim of this framework of this framework is to promote international transparency, recognition and mobility of European degrees.

Additionally, the European Union has established a European Qualifications Framework. The main aim of this framework is the promotion of lifelong learning by making it easier for people to move between different types of education and training institutions, for example between higher education and vocational education and training.

Quality assurance

All European countries have introduced or are introducing measures to assure the quality of the education provided by their higher education institutions.

They have elaborated and agreed upon Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area. These European standards and guidelines regard:

  • internal quality assurance within higher education institutions
  • external quality assurance of higher education
  • external quality assurance agencies
  • a peer review system for quality assurance agencies

European quality assurance agencies have organised themselves in the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). In order to become or remain a full member of ENQA, quality assurance agencies have to undergo an external review.

The European Credit System

European higher education uses the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). ECTS is intended to facilitate student mobility and international curriculum development. It is a generalised basis for all the national credit systems and is regarded not only as a transfer but also as an accumulation system.

ECTS promotes a systematic approach to describing educational programmes by attaching credits to its components. The definition of credits in national higher education systems may however be based on different parameters, such as student workload, learning outcomes and contact hours.

ECTS makes it easy to read and compare programmes accross Europe. It facilitates mobility and academic recognition and helps universities to organise and design their programmes.

Diploma Supplement

All students in Europe should receive the Diploma Supplement. This is a document attached to a higher education diploma. It provides a standardised description of the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies that were successfully completed by the graduate.

The Diploma Supplement is intended to provide transparency and facilitate academic and professional recognition of qualifications (diplomas, degrees, certificates) awarded in Europe.

The Diploma Supplement is produced by the higher education institutions themselves. They do this according to a template that has been developed by jointly by the European Union's Commission, the Council of Europe and UNESCO. It is composed of the following eight sections:

  • information identifying the holder of the qualification,
  • information identifying the qualification,
  • information on the level of the qualification,
  • information on the contents and results gained,
  • information on the function of the qualification,
  • additional information,
  • certification of the Supplement,
  • information on the national higher education system.

Recognition of foreign diplomas

The Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region was developed by the Council of Europe and UNESCO and adopted in 1997.

Among the main points of the Lisbon Recognition Convention are the following:

  • Holders of qualifications issued in one country shall have adequate access to an assessment of these qualifications in another country.
  • No discrimination shall be made in this respect on any ground such as the applicant's gender, race, colour, disability, language, religion, political opinion, national, ethnic or social origin.
  • The responsibility to demonstrate that an application does not fulfil the relevant requirements lies with the body undertaking the assessment.
  • Each country shall recognise qualifications – whether for access to higher education, for periods of study or for higher education degrees – as similar to the corresponding qualifications in its own system unless it can show that there are substantial differences between its own qualifications and the qualifications for which recognition is sought.
  • Recognition of a higher education qualification issued in another country shall have one or more of the following consequences:
    • access to further higher education studies, including relevant examinations and preparations for the doctorate, on the same conditions as candidates from the country in which recognition is sought;
    • The use of an academic title, subject to the laws and regulations of the country in which recognition is sought
    • In addition, recognition may facilitate access to the labour market.

  • All countries shall develop procedures to assess whether refugees and displaced persons fulfil the relevant requirements for access to higher education or to employment activities, even in cases in which the qualifications cannot be proven through documentary evidence.
  • All countries shall provide information on the institutions and programmes they consider as belonging to their higher education systems.
  • All countries shall appoint a national information centre, one important task of which is to offer advice on the recognition of foreign qualifications to students, graduates, employers, higher education institutions and other interested parties or persons.
  • All countries shall encourage their higher education institutions to issue the Diploma Supplement to their students in order to facilitate recognition. The Diploma Supplement is an instrument developed jointly by the European Commission, the Council of Europe and UNESCO that aims to describe the qualification in an easily understandable way and relating it to the higher education system within which it was issued.

See also