Washington, D.C., April 8, 2009—While the United States remains concerned about its standing in terms of participation in global higher education and completion of degrees, 46 countries in Europe have been working for a decade on a completely different set of issues: bringing their higher education systems closer together in terms of standards for degrees, credit systems, more flexible pathways into and through higher education (hence, access), and accountability criteria. They call their undertaking “The Bologna Process,” and it is still a work in progress.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy’s (IHEP) new study, The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence, contends the nation has misplaced its focus with pointing out that the countries involved in the Bologna Process are producing more and better degrees whose reference points in student learning outcomes is transparent—something that cannot be said for American awarded degrees. Countries outside of Europe have already recognized the profound revolution rolling from Cork to Vladivostok with parts of the Bologna Process having been imitated in Latin America, North Africa, and Australia, resulting in a global shift in higher education leadership.
For a long time, U.S. higher education did not pay much attention to the Bologna Process, but since IHEP published a long essay in May 2008, titled The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Reconstruction, the U.S. higher education has started listening seriously. Our nation is now starting to act, most notably, on learning outcomes in the context of the disciplines.
In fact, three state higher education systems—Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah—have begun their work examining and testing the Bologna “Tuning” process in six disciplines to determine the forms and extent of its potential in the United States contexts. Scarcely a year ago, such an effort, called “Tuning USA,” would have been unthinkable.
Tuning USA, the first footprint of the Bologna Process on North American shores, had its inspiration in The Bologna Club essay. IHEP ‘s new study, The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes, covers everything a U.S. reader would want to know about the most far-reaching overhaul of higher education ever undertaken, its successes, shortcomings, and unfinished agenda, and its implications for the way America conducts its higher education enterprise.
“When one watches other nations address problems similar to one’s own, with languages and cultural traditions that cast their solutions through lenses one has never used, new ways of configuring solutions inevitably arise,” said IHEP Senior Associate Clifford Adelman, and author of the Bologna Process studies. “This report shows such epiphanies including the treatment of part-time students, the use of sophisticated geo-coding to identify and target populations for increased access, or reconstructing associate’s degrees in ways that almost automatically produce higher transfer rates.”
What You Will Learn About and From the Bologna Process
The primary lessons are what the Bologna Process is really about, as opposed to what, until recently, U.S. higher education leaders thought it was about.
- The core of Bologna lies in what The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes calls an “accountability loop,” which starts with “qualification frameworks” that are clear statements of what students must demonstrate to earn a “short-cycle” degree (comparable to an American associate’s degree), a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctoral degree. These statements are articulated in terms of knowledge, the application of knowledge, fluency in the use of information, breadth depth and effectiveness of communication, and degree of autonomy gained for subsequent learning. And they are written in such a way that the challenge and criteria for “demonstrating” mastery get marked up from one degree level to the next. All 46 countries have agreed to this general framework, but each country then produces a national version. Adelman’s metaphor is that they “wind up singing in the same key, though not necessarily the same tune.”
- The accountability loop continues at the level of the discipline—from standard academic fields such as chemistry or history to applied fields such as hospitality management or medical technology. It is at this level that the Tuning process occurs, a way of establishing common reference points for writing student learning outcome statements in consultation with faculty, students, and employers. These learning outcome statements result in knowing why a degree in nursing, for example, is a degree in nursing and not in something else. Bologna degrees that have gone through the Tuning process thus mean a great deal more than something signifying merely 120 credits, 40 in the major, and a 2.75 or better GPA. Tuning at the level of the discipline is the best entry point to the United States for Bologna principles, because the discipline is the plane of faculty organization and training, and the field on which students explore their true interests. The new Tuning USA project embodies this recognition.
- The loop also involves a credit system 180 degrees different from that used in the United States. It is based on student workload, not faculty contact hours, and (in a growing number of countries) each course is assigned a level of challenge so that the combination of workload and level guarantees transfer of credits.
- Every student who earns a degree receives a “Diploma Supplement,” an official documented summary of the setting, nature, purpose, and requirements of the degree and major program. This public document becomes a descriptive warranty of what the student did to earn the degree, and closes the accountability loop. Although Adelman does not believe the Europeans have realized the potential of Diploma Supplements, this type of document is also a potential entry point for Bologna reforms in the United States. The state higher education system in Utah has already done so, and will be bringing on its own “electronic portfolio” as a supplement to bachelor’s degrees in 2010.
“It’s not a done deal in all 46 countries. In both the attempt and degree of progress, particularly across 23 major languages, Bologna leaves you breathless,” continues Adelman. “Of course it’s taken them 10 years so far, but in academic time, that’s a hand’s breadth.”
A second set of lessons takes the United States beyond the accountability loop, first to what the Bologna Process calls the “social dimension” (similar to the American terms “equity of access and participation”), and second to the “external dimension,” in which Bologna faces the rest of the world. These considerations lead to a selective list of what is left to be done in the Bologna agenda over the next decade with an expanded battalion of troops in the trenches.
Where does the United States go next? For the first time, we will have invited observers to the biennial conference of Bologna country ministers when they meet in Belgium at the end of April 2009, acknowledging that we are now global participants. As the Tuning USA project plays out over the next seven or eight months, we will learn more about its potential expansion, as well as the larger potential for degree “qualifications frameworks” expressed in our own terms. We will be engaging with the rest of the world in higher education matters in more substantive ways than we have engaged in the past.
The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence is the third publication in a five-part IHEP series under its Measuring Global Performance Initiative. The first study, a longer and more detailed essay, The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Reconstruction, was released in May 2008 and covers access and accountability issues, and was also written by Adelman. This publication was immediately followed by the July 2008 release of Learning Accountability from Bologna: A Higher Education Policy Primer, which examines the reconstruction of the 46 European higher education systems. All publications, along with a Web-based information resource center that includes more than 500 documents in 22 Bologna-inspired topical categories, are available on IHEP's Web site.
Launched in 2007, the Measuring Global Performance Initiative aims to create a new understanding of the rapidly changing global context for learning and credentialing in higher education, and the potential impact of these changes in the United States. The initiative covers not only the Bologna Process and its implications, but also the challenge of constructing more enlightening international comparative indicators of participation, pathways, and attainment in higher education than are currently available.
The initiative is supported by Lumina Foundation for Education, an Indianapolis-based private foundation striving to help people achieve their potential by expanding access to and success in education beyond high school.