April 2009    Volume 22, Issue 3
  International Education Intelligence   
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The Bologna Process - A Significant Step in the Modularization of Higher Education

By Lloyd Armstrong, University Professor, University of Southern California

Modularization is critical to the success of industrial globalization because it enables global maximization of the production process by utilizing “best” producers of different modules. There are certainly components of cross-border higher education that can be described as modular. Nevertheless, the reality is that higher education at this time is not really thought of in modular terms, and that limits the impact of globalization in higher education. All of this may be about to change, however, because the Bologna Process is all about finding ways to define educational modules and create quality control mechanisms for those modules. It provides a fascinating look at ways in which educational modules are different from, and similar to, the modules that have enabled globalization in industry, and suggests that educational modularization ultimately may result in a remarkable shift of power from the institutions to the students. If it succeeds, the Bologna Process may show the way to rapid increases in the globalization of higher education.

The Bologna Process involves a number of components, all of which add up to a massive and daring remake of higher education in what is called the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), which includes at its core the countries of the European Union. The process takes its name from the Bologna Accords, which were signed in 1999 by the education ministers of 29 countries. Clifford Adelman at the Institute of Higher Education Policy, has recently written a very thorough and informative report on the current state of the Bologna Process called The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Construction. Although most U.S. attention has focused on the regional change to a three-year bachelor degree and two-year master degree, Adelman points out that this time-based description is misleading, and certainly not the most important and revolutionary part of the Process.

One of the goals of the Process is to use higher education to help develop and strengthen the identity of the European area. To this end, the Process seeks to make it easier for students in Europe to move from institutions in one country to those in another, encouraging them to think of themselves as “European” students rather than specifically “French”, “Hungarian” or otherwise. Education should move across national boundaries (at least within the EHEA) as easily as capital or goods. Thus the major educational initiative of the Process is to facilitate such mobility by bringing increased uniformity to definitions of academic courses and degrees and to quality control.

This is an enormously complex task, since the Process recognizes that the goal is not to “standardize” courses and degrees by removing variation, history and context from offerings, but rather to provide a set of reference points that enable one institution to evaluate clearly the educational attainments of a student from another institution. In Adelman’s terms, the goal is to harmonize, not standardize.

The process of harmonization plays out at several levels. This effort begins with a Framework for Qualifications of various generic degrees (e.g. bachelor’s, master’s, or more correctly, first cycle, second cycle), which are related to one another by a “ratchet” principle - that is, each higher degree relates to the previous one, but with higher levels of attainment. As Adelman writes:

Under the Framework for Qualifications there are five learning outcome constructs, each of which evidences the “ratchet principle” in their descriptions:

  • The reference points of “knowledge and understanding”;
  • The contexts and modes of application of knowledge and understanding;
  • Fluency in the use of increasingly complex data and information;
  • Breadth and depth of topics communicated, along with the range of audiences for that communication; and
  • Degree of autonomy gained for subsequent learning.

As one moves up through the texts of the credential ladder, one notes the fading of occupational orientation, the emergence of social and ethical dimensions of learning, and the passage from well-defined contexts and problems to more fluid and dynamic contexts and problems.

The 46 countries of the EHEA have agreed to standards with respect to these learning outcomes that describe each degree cycle, and educational institutions within that region have agreed that they now have a responsibility to demonstrate that their graduating students have indeed attained the desired levels of learning. How they demonstrate it is largely left up to the institutions, but what they need to demonstrate now is commonly accepted. In many cases, nations are moving to set up national qualification frameworks that define how this Framework for Qualifications should be demonstrated nationally to best preserve particular historic and cultural aspects of their higher education systems. In any case, leaving the “how” up to individual institutions and countries has lead to a great deal of creative thinking about outcome measurements.

The challenge then moves to specifying expectations for student learning outcomes for specific degrees (Tuning Project), e.g BA in physics, MS in history. Here, again, the EHEA is advancing. The discussions are understandably difficult, and studies of results thus far are mixed. However, step-by-step advances are being made, leaving the countries involved (which now includes more than the EHEA) with a much clearer understanding than exists in other countries of what needs to be learned in specific fields in the context of today’s realities.

A particularly important component of all of this is the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), started earlier under ERASMUS, but refined and extended for Bologna. A particularly clear and succinct definition of ECTS can be found on the website of Tilburg University:

The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System is a student-centred system based on the student workload required to achieve the objectives of a programme, objectives preferably specified in terms of the learning outcomes and competences to be acquired.

The Bologna scheme calls for all courses to be award ECTS credits, and that these credits be accepted freely around the region in order to facilitate student movement. At present, credits are closely tied to the average time theoretically required to achieve the desired learning outcomes and competencies, rather than any demonstration of achievement. Obviously, the system would be more robust if the credits related to demonstration of actual achievement of some base level of learning outcomes and competencies, but thus far there are no identified methods to do this uniformly.

All of this can be viewed from the perspective of defining modules of “production” in the educational cycle. This fits one common model of modular production in which input/output characteristics of the module are specified precisely by the central design (Bologna), with considerable flexibility being given to the module producers (the institutions of EHEA) in how those characteristics are realized.

Importantly, however, the customer (the student) is also part of the production process, and this changes the power relationships of production considerably. In the industrial model, it is the “producer” of the finished product who picks the outsourcing partners who will produce modules that go into the finished product. In the Bologna case, within wide limits, the customer decides where to get the various modules that in the end will result in the degree “product”. This reversal of power positions may provide considerable challenges, and opportunities, to universities in the future.

The Bologna Process is a very bold experiment that has the potential to change higher education in ways probably not envisaged by its creators. The very elements that enable and encourage movement about the EHEA, if successful, are those that could open up globalization of higher education generally. One of the greatest obstacles to greater globalization at the moment is the inability to judge and validate the educational modules offered by potential partners around the world. Should Bologna be able to define workable "best practices", they could easily become the de facto standards that enable quality control in a modularized approach to higher education. This is an experiment that deserves more attention from American higher education!


This article was originally published on the author’s weblog, Changing Higher Education, in September 2008, and has been reprinted with permission.

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