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Bologna's 10th anniversary: too early for champagne

It was undoubtedly Italian wine that was poured for the European ministers of education in Bologna in 1999. And there will without a doubt be wine again - but then most likely French wine - in Leuven at the tenth commemoration of the Bologna declaration. It may even be champagne. Karl Dittrich, chairman of the Dutch-Flemish higher education accreditation organisation, already knows what the tone will be: "In Leuven, we will hear that 'tremendous steps forward' have been made, 'and that while we were already so good'. But this calls for some qualification."

Since 1999, the term Bologna has stood for the Bachelor-Master structure, for the harmonisation of higher education in Europe to enable students to cross the continent and study anywhere and everywhere without too much trouble. What used to be a patchwork of different study contents, study duration, and levels, should by now at least be well organised and have a reasonable quality. And it should, maybe most importantly, indeed lead to mobility, to Bachelors students from Zaragoza going to Leipzig to do their Masters there, or temporarily moving from Groningen to Bristol.

The first question to ask is whether this is actually happening. Do more students travel abroad for a Masters study? To answer this, we need statistics, which do exist, but their number is limited and they do not always fit the question. Nuffic's 'core figures', however, help a great deal. Note that these figures do not relate to Erasmus students or anything similar, where students spend a few months abroad to get a few credits, but to full studies (Bachelors or Masters) at regularly funded institutes, the so-called diploma mobility.

If we look at the wanderlust of the Dutch compared to the inhabitants of other countries in northern Europe, we can see that the Netherlands is dangling at the bottom of a list of six, with a mere 2.4 per cent of the students in higher professional and university education (grouped together in the statistics) going abroad for a diploma in 2005-6. Sweden tops the list with 3.7 per cent, which shows at the same time that we're not talking about mass migration. But even Belgium (2.7 %) does better than the Netherlands, and so does Denmark.

Nevertheless, there is a trend that diploma mobility is increasing, says Eric Richters from Nuffic. As far as the Dutch are concerned, only 12,000 students left to try their luck elsewhere (Great Britain, Belgium and Germany being popular destinations) in 2001-2. Four years later (more recent figures are not available yet) this number had risen to more than 14,000. A little more than a quarter, by the way, went to study outside Europe.

As a recipient country, the Netherlands scores reasonably well, with 6.1 per cent of the students in higher education in 2005-6 coming from abroad. Germany scored 11.4 per cent, Belgium 10.3, and Finland a mere 2.9.

In the case of the Netherlands, approximately two thirds of those who come here are originally from a European country. And the figure is growing. In the 2006-7 academic year, the number had risen to almost 24,000 Europeans, while in the present academic year it has gone up to more than 30,000.

Breaking down the inflow between Bachelors and Masters students, we can see that the Bachelors students are a small majority.

In short, according to Nuffic the 'incoming' mobility in the Netherlands is clearly growing; the 'outgoing' mobility is too, but to a lesser extent.

Is this all because of Bologna? Eric Richters: "It is still too early to say. Bologna was in 1999, the BaMa system did not start in the Netherlands until 2002, and even later in other countries. But there is definitely growth."

 

What remains is the question whether the studies taken abroad by those students are indeed up to scratch, and whether the difference in quality is not too great. As the labour market is waiting after graduation, it would be good to know if a French diploma would get you a job in Germany without any trouble, or a Swedish one in Spain. This requires proper quality control and mutual recognition of diplomas. Chairman Karl Dittrich from NVAO: "In Leuven, they will say that ten years after Bologna things are great, but this is not the case. There is an inclination to gloss over the differences in quality between countries."

There is no need to worry about the northwest of Europe, he says, "but between you, me and the gatepost, if you go in a south-easterly direction, things don't get any easier. Or perhaps should I say that we don't know much about the quality, we have no real view of what is happening in Italy, Portugal or Greece. Spain on the other hand, is making serious efforts to catch up, France is doing excellent when it comes to engineering studies, but is otherwise very closed off. Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, are quite far, their education systems are reliable and so is quality control."

Perhaps, Dittrich suggests, we should in this case also have a Europe moving at two or even three different speeds. "The point is that every Bologna state has committed itself to good quality control as a condition for good education, but when can a quality control system be called successful? In principle, everything is organised at a national level. We are part of a European Consortium of Accreditation organisations" (Dittrich has been vice chairman of this ECA for a year now; ed.) "there are observers who sit in on each other's procedures, but that does not happen in all cases. Besides, it does not mean much, except that you know that the process as such works. You still know nothing about the final level of the studies."

With respect to the last matter of clarity about the final level of Bachelors and Masters studies, a European qualification framework has been drawn up, but Dittrich says, "this is fairly general and whether the requirements have been met, is often a matter of national interpretation. Of course, if one assesses oneself, one is more inclined to think that everything is fine. The Dutch level was audited by an international committee and found to be good."

Bologna means harmonisation of systems, equality of diplomas. It does not mean forcing everyone into line. Member states are responsible for their own education systems, which can be a great obstacle for integration and co-cooperation. Dittrich feels that Europe often comes up against the borders of this national autonomy: "In a country such as Germany, the idea is that the final thesis of a Masters study should be worth thirty credits (ECTS), many more than what is required in other countries. This makes co-operation and joint degrees a lot more difficult. This means that national policies, however much they may aim at high quality, impede the process again."

 

Wammes Bos

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