In many respects, the Bologna Process has been revolutionary for cooperation in European higher education. Four education ministers participating in the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the University of Paris (Sorbonne Joint Declaration, 1998) shared the view that the segmentation of the European higher education sector in Europe was outdated and harmful. The decision to engage in a voluntary process to create the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was formalized one year later in Bologna, by 30 countries (The Bologna Declaration, 1999). It is now apparent that this was a unique undertaking as the process today includes no fewer than 47 participating countries, out of the 49 countries that have ratified the European Cultural Convention of the Council of Europe (1954).
At its inception, the Bologna Process was meant to stregthen the competitiveness and attractiveness of the European higher education and to foster student mobility and employability through the introduction of a system based on undergraduate and postgraduate studies with easily readable programmes and degrees. Quality assurance has played an important role from the outset, too.
However, the various ministerial meetings since 1999 have broadened this agenda and have given greater precision to the tools that have been developed. The undergraduate/postgraduate degree structure has been modified into a three-cycle system, which now includes the concept of qualifications frameworks, with an emphasis on learning outcomes. The concept of social dimension of higher education has been introduced and recognition of qualifications is now clearly perceived as central to the European higher education policies. In brief, the evolution of the main objectives of the Bologna Process can be seen hereby.
The Sorbonne Declaration was signed in 1998, by the ministers of four countries, namely France, Germany, Uk and Italy. The aim of the Declaration was to create a common frame of reference within the intended European Higher Education Area, where mobility should be promoted both for students and graduates, as well as for the teaching staff. Also, it was meant to ensure the promotion of qualifications, with regard to the job market.
The aims of the Sorbonne Declaration were confirmed in 1999, through the Bologna Declaration, where 29-30 countries expressed their willingness to commit to enhance the competitiveness of the European Higher Education Area, emphasising the need to further the independence and autonomy of all Higher Education Institutions. All the provisions of the Bologna Declaration were set as measures of a voluntary harmonisation process, not as clauses of a binding contract.
As follow-up to the Bologna Declaration, there have taken place Ministerial Conferences every two years, the ministers expressing their will through the respective Communiqués.
With the Prague Communiqué, in 2001, the number of member countries was enlarged to 33, and there has also taken place an expansion of the objectives, in terms of lifelong learning, involving students as active partners and enhancing the attractiveness and competitiveness of the European Higher Education Area. Also, the participating ministers committed themselves to ensure the further development of quality assurance and development of national qualification frameworks. This objective was correlated with the lifelong learning one, as it is considered an important element of higher education that must be taken into consideration when building up new systems. Also, it is important to mention that the topic of social dimension was first introduced in the Prague Communiqué.
The following Ministerial Conference took place in Berlin, in 2003, thus the Berlin Communiqué enlarging the number of countries to 40 members. The main provisions of this Communiqué dealt with an expansion of the objectives, in terms of promotion of linking European Higher Education Area to European Research Area, as well as the promotion of quality assurance. Another important aspect that the Berlin Communiqué stated referred to establishing the follow-up structures supporting the process in-between two Ministerial meetings. This arrangement established the Bologna Follow-up Group, the Board and the Bologna Secretariat.
With this Communiqué the Ministers also agreed that there should be created a national follow-up structure in each of the participating countries.
The Bergen Communiqué, of 2005, underlined the importance of partnerships, including stakeholders – students, HEIs, academic staff and employers, together with the further enhancing of research, especially with regard to the third cycle – doctoral programmes. Also, this Communiqué stressed the ministers’ will to provide a more accessible higher education, together with an increased attractiveness of the EHEA to other parts of the world.
With the London Communiqué, of 2007, the number of participating countries was enlarged to 46. This Communiqué focused on evaluating the progress achieved by that time, concerning mobility, degree structure, recognition, qualifications frameworks (both overarching and national), lifelong learning, quality assurance, social dimension, and also set the priorities for 2009, these being, mainly, mobility, social dimension, which was defined here for the first time, data collection, employability, EHEA in a global context and stock taking. For 2010 and beyond, it was stressed that there is the need for further collaboration, seeing it as an opportunity to reformulate the visions and values.
In the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué, of 2009, the main working areas for the next decade were set, with emphasis on: social dimension, lifelong learning, employability, student centred learning and the teaching mission of education, international openness, mobility, education, research & innovation, as well as data collection, funding of the HE and multidimensional transparency tools. These main working areas show a new orientation of the Bologna Process, towards a more in-depth approach of the reforms, thus ensuring the completion of the Bologna Process implementation. Another change, in terms of internal arrangements, referred to the Bologna Process Chairing procedure: from a previous situation where the Bologna Process had been chaired by the country holding the EU Presidency, to a situation according to which the Process is being chaired by two countries: both the country holding the EU Presidency and a non-EU country, named in alphabetical order, starting from July 1st, 2010.
The following Ministerial Conference took place only one year after the aforementioned, more precisely in March 2010. It took place in Budapest-Vienna and it was an Anniversary Conference, celebrating a decade of the Bologna Process. With this occasion, there took place the official launching of the European Higher Education Area, which meant that, in terms of a common European framework for HE, the objective set in the Bologna Declaration was accomplished.
However, the existence of the European Higher Education Area in itself did not mean an achievement of all the objectives agreed upon by the ministers involved in the Bologna Process. Therefore, we can now say that the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area have entered a new phase, namely the consolidation and operationalisation one, especially in light of the very different reactions to the Bologna Process implementation across Europe.
Also, starting with the Budapest-Vienna Ministerial Conference, the EHEA has been expanded to 47 countries, the most recently admitted being Kazakhstan.
Besides the Ministerial Conferences, there are also Bologna Policy Fora organized, which were so far coupled with the EHEA Ministerial Conferences.
The first Bologna Policy Forum was organized in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve in 2009 and it was attended by the 46 members of the Bologna Process, at the time, as well as a wide range of third countries and NGOs. The main issues agreed upon by the participants were the following: the key role that HE plays in the development of the society, based on lifelong learning and equitable access at all levels of society to learning opportunities, the importance of public investment in higher education, in spite of the economic crisis, transnational exchanges in higher education should be governed on the basis of academic values, advocating a balanced exchange of teachers, researchers and students between countries, in order to promote fair and fruitful “brain circulation”, as an alternative to brain drain.
The Second Bologna Policy Forum took place in Vienna, in March 2010, and it was attended by the 47 members and the eight consultative members, as well as third countries and other relevant NGOs. The main topics of discussion included in the Second Bologna Policy Forum Statement refer to the manner in which higher education systems and institutions respond to the growing demands and multiple expectations and the balance between cooperation and competition in international higher education. This Forum’s Statement also included some possible concrete feedback to be taken up by the participants, such as nominating contact persons for each participating country which will also function as liaison points for a better flow of information and joint activities, including the preparation of the next Bologna Policy Forum at ministerial level. Also the need for supporting global student dialogue was acknowledged.
As far as implementation is concerned, progress over the years has been uneven, as can be seen from the various stocktaking exercises. This shows that the reforms of the Bologna Process must still be furthered, in order to ensure more comparable, compatible and coherent systems of higher education in Europe.
If by 2010, the main aim of the Bologna Process was to put in place a European Higher Education Area, as stated in the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué, the main priorities for the next decade are:
• Social dimension
• Lifelong learning
• Student-centred learning
• Education, research and innovation
• Data collection
• Multidimensional transparency tools
Therefore, the Bologna Follow-up Group set up the following working groups for the 2009-2012 period:
• Social dimension
• Qualifications frameworks
• International openness
• Reporting on the implementation of the Bologna Process
• Transparency mechanisms,
And the following networks:
• EHEA Information and Promotion Network;
• Network for Experts in Student Support in Europe – NESSIE;
• Network for National Qualifications Frameworks Correspondents.
Now, after the launching of the European Higher Education Area, the Bologna Process moves towards a new phase, a more in-depth one, focusing on a reduction of the implementation discrepancies in the countries forming the EHEA.
The next milestone of the European Higher Education Area will be marked with the upcoming Ministerial Conference, which will take place in Bucharest, Romania, on 26-27 April 2012. The Third Bologna Policy Forum will be also connected to this ministerial meeting, thus enabling further debate on the progress of the European Higher Education Area on the global scale.