All good ideas come from Northern Italy, or so European children learn in history class. Take the Latins for example: after moving to Rome, they not only conquered the world using new weapons technology but also introduced a whole new law and tax system in Europe, not to mention sewers for their own comfort! Later on, Florence and Pisa bred famous artists and scientists like Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galilei. These developments, however, are peanuts compared to a process started about a thousand years ago and still affecting people all over the continent: the foundation of Europe's first university in Bologna in 1088.

Photo: Annika Wießügel / www.youthphotos.eu
The Neptune Fountain in Bologna

Since then, European education has come a long way. Nowadays you can not only study Roman Law in Italy (the first subject ever taught) but you may also choose between courses like International Cruise Industry Management in Germany, Technical Cybernetics in the Czech Republic or Public Health Nutrition in England. Yet 921 years later Bologna has been brought back to the centre of attention. With an ever increasing number of universities and subjects, 29 European Ministers of Education met at the medieval town in 1999 with the aim of increasing "the international competitiveness of the European system of higher education," as stated in the 'Bologna Declaration.' By now 46 European states, among them countries like Turkey, Switzerland and Albania, are implementing the Bolognian guidelines. The two guiding aims at Bologna were to establish a comparable system of degrees and university standards and to facilitate the mobility of students and academics.

The first step in transforming the European university system was to introduce Bachelor and Master degrees so as to harmonise the different countries' approaches to higher education. The two-cycle system focuses on preparing students for business life. Awarded after only three to four years of study, the Bachelor is designed to be recognised as the first verification of your ability to start working. However, many employers don't regard the Bachelor as sufficient qualification yet. "I prefer a well-educated apprentice who has finished his education, rather than an applicant with a Bachelor degree," says Ulrich S., a German recruiter in industry. This is not surprising considering that in most European states it took significantly longer to receive a diploma before Bologna occurred. But for those students seeking a more secure perspective there is still the second step on the Bolognian ladder. After another couple of years at university you can receive a Master degree, but although you may continue with different studies, it is only by good results in the Bachelor that can expect to progress to this further stage of university.

Giving students the freedom to choose where to study through a regulated system is one of Bologna’s greatest outcomes. Another sign of how the Bologna Process is expanding the mobility of students has been the increasing success of the Erasmus programme. Although Erasmus was a separate initiative formed in 1987, both the practicality and appeal of taking an Erasmus year owes a lot of its success to the Bologna process. By aligning undergraduate degrees to a comparable level the Bologna initiative has increased the value of studying abroad for a year. And although it is not mandatory for most students to spend a semester abroad, more and more universities are encouraging them to seize the chance. "It is recommended to take the 5th semester abroad." reports Mari B. who studies journalism in Stavanger, Norway. "I think I will go to Denmark," the 21-year-old adds. The figures from 2006 show that around 1% of the total student population of Europe participated in the Erasmus programme - that's 150,000 students who are studying under an alternative education system.

Nevertheless, students are still facing difficulties when it comes to the applying their learning back home and getting foreign credit points accepted. This is especially the case when old university systems are still in the reforming cycle.

Photo: Ana Mustar / www.youthphotos.eu
The Erasmus programme was boosted by the Bologna process.

"I spent a great year at LSE in London," says law student Johann S. from Berlin, Germany. "However, legal studies in the UK are completely different from the ones in Germany." The 22-year-old was also surprised by the different amounts of courses students have to take in each country. "They are only required to take twelve courses during their three-year Bachelor program in the UK, which means that it is basically impossible to gain a comprehensive insight into the functioning of law as a system. Afterwards, I couldn't transfer any credits to my home university degree." This is particularly but not only related to the fact that most German universities still haven't established Bachelor or Master degrees for law but cling to the old "Staatsexamen" (state exam) as it is still the only legal way to a law career in Germany. In contrast, even non-EU states like Serbia have already introduced the Bolognian system for their future lawyers and judges, as Ilija R. says. "My Master studies start on 1st October," the law student from Belgrade adds. Here, the importance of national profession regulations for the implementation of Bologna is obvious.

Apart from the compatibility of different countries' approaches, the duration of studies may still cause some trouble. The number of years needed to complete a Bachelor degree across Europe is usually 3 years, but it remains 4 in the Netherlands and Spain. This means either one more year of solid work or an even greater opportunity for partying hard, depending on your student style! The number of hours each student works also varies noticeably between countries. Amongst E&M's contributors and their peers, the time spent working ranged from 20-25 hours course work per week for Journalism in Norway to 50 hours for Law in Germany whilst the average for Engineering in Latvia and Maths in the UK lay at 30-35 hours. Prefer working in class to sleeping in the library? There are still noticeable differences between whether your university time is spent with Europe's finest lecturers or on your own, pondering that essay you should have written. "My studies are mainly in classes." says Liva D. who will become a chemical engineer when she finishes her studies in Riga, Latvia. In contrast, Polona Z. who studies history and English language and literature in Maribor, Slovenia, states that classes and independent learning each form half of her studies, whilst Johann S. mostly learns by himself, not even attending many of his classes.

The same differences can be seen in the second cycle of study. Whilst a number of countries required no changes to implement the accepted Master programme, Germany still has a large number of universities offering the old style 'Diplom' degrees that existed there before 1999. Although valued just as highly in Germany as the growing Master course their presence emphasises the incomplete nature of a pan-European system. When questioned on the Bologna Process, some students didn't know what it was! It was clear throughout E&M's investigations that when deciding which country to study in, the differences were still very important and that the progress has been uneven across Europe. It will take time for any form of genuinely standardised system to emerge.

Photo: Mari Skovsgaard Berg
Mari will go abraod during her undergraduate.

Yet one big problem facing European students lies in comparing the quality of universities between countries. One way is to look at cost – in Belgium fees for a European student are around 800 €/year; whilst foreign students at Oxford, UK will pay around 3,885 €/year. Can you deduce from this that Belgian universities are better value for money than those in the UK? Herein lies the Bologna process's weakness in providing a 'high-quality higher education.' Because it is not European legislation, cooperation is entirely voluntary. Therefore, no standardised and international system can ever truly be expected for a 'European BA' while each country can allow its universities to teach at very different levels. Take any two universities in the UK (or any other EU country) and their BA will be of different value depending on the reputation of that university, hence the publication of 'Good university guides' in national newspapers. Some are known to be more academically challenging than others: "I've often done four or five essays in the time my friend has done one!” Michael from KCL, London told us; whilst others may be cheaper at the risk of being less intellectually stimulating. The Bologna Process cannot address nor change this in its current form. It seems that the best European students can do is to look at each of the universities carefully before deciding to study abroad.

What with all these teething problems, it's not surprising that there have been some protests against the Bologna process by now. Spanish students actually marched through Barcelona in 2008 to object to it because it allowed differences to emerge in their universities, destroying the standardised central system they already had. In June 2009, German students not only protested against the economisation of their universities but also identified Bologna as a key reason for budget cuts at universities. This is extremely surprising, given that economisation was never a declared aim of Bologna. Nevertheless, in some countries Bologna has served as a scapegoat for any unpopular reform or spending cut in the university system.

Then again, there are those countries where Bologna has brought a positive change to the scenery. "I think people don't like the Bologna process because it's new and different. They don't like changes. I personally am studying in it and I quite like it. It makes you think for yourself, it expects you to be involved in the process of studying, getting knowledge yourself, being active." affirms Slovenian student Polona Z. Bologna tries to standardise: for some countries this may mean more student involvement, more self-directed learning, for others, it may mean the reverse as they are coming from a higher level.

Photo: Liva Dzene
Liva spends her bulk of study time in classes, self-learning
is low on her degree.

There is more to come: for example, the Bachelor and Master are to be upgraded to a three-cycle system also including a doctorate. If Bologna's supporters are to be believed, this will lay the foundations for European academic careers, ensuring that there will be enough highly skilled professors for the next generation.

When it comes to these hopes for the future, it is above all important to remember that it is called the Bologna "process." It is designed to be a path towards a European system of education. After only ten years, at least courses have become comparable in a rudimentary way, enabling young people to explore other countries, new fields of study and different methods. So instead of mourning lost diplomas, maybe we ought to be looking back at what has gone right in the last ten years and trying to develop and improve the Bologna process. And perhaps we should concentrate on what Bologna was always supposed to be: a powerful idea uniting people from different nationalities to become well-educated, independently thinking citizens.

Photo on the first page: Sebastian Olényi / www.youthphotos.eu

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