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19th Jul 2019

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Anti-Bologna movement spreads in Spain

Opposition to the Bologna Process, an EU-inspired series of university and college reforms, has expanded substantially across Spain in recent weeks, as students protest, occupy school buildings and even block rail lines.

In the last week, demonstrations and occupations have in particular stepped up in Madrid with sit-ins taking over faculties or otherwise protesting at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), the rectorate of the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) and University of Alcalá de Henares northeast of the capital.

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Actions have also taken place in Valencia, Seville and further afield. In Barcelona, students blocked railway lines. The Bologna Process has also provoked significant student opposition in Italy, Finland and Croatia.

Protests against the reform of European higher education have rolled across the continent in the past year, with students attacking the Bologna Process as a way to commercialise public universities and impose an Anglo-Saxon style tertiary education system on other countries.

But the protests in Spain have been more militant than in other EU member states and other countries participating in the reforms.

The Bologna Process bills itself as a series of changes to post-secondary education that are primarily intended to ease mobility for both students and academics.

A recent survey by the Erasmus Student Network revealed that only 58 percent of Erasmus students (the European post-secondary student exchange programme) are receiving recognition for all the courses they take abroad. The Bologna Process aims to fix this problem.

The process kicked off in 1999, when the EU's four largest member states, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, said they wanted to see a harmonised higher eduction system "which has been a bit of a jigsaw puzzle," according to John MacDonald, the European Commission's education, training and culture spokesman.

The heart of the process is twofold: the development of a system of credits for both academic learning, and the design of a common degree structure for university education. A similar mechanism is also under way for vocational training – the Copenhagen Process.

The common structure that was chosen is partially modelled on the Anglo-American three-cycle Bachelor's-Master's-Doctorate system.

The process has been so popular amongst governments not just in Europe, but well beyond, with 46 states signing up. Australia, Israel and Thailand have even expressed interest.

Intergovernmental agreements

The EU itself has no competence in the realm of education and the Bologna Process was not based on any EU initiative or legislation, but rather through a series of intergovernmental agreements. However, despite this, the European Commission plays an increasingly key role in the implementation of the process.

But students argue that while it may be popular amongst politicians, it is this very intergovernmental level bargaining that has produced the reform mechanisms that has left them out of the loop.

Students in Spain fear that the streamlining of education systems is being done more for the sake of employers' than their. They are strongly critical of allowing companies to fund certain degrees, saying this commercialises public universities.

They are also worried that in a country with few grants and no loans, changes increasing class hours and boosting the number of assessments, they will no longer be able to work to support themselves while they study.

Additionally, they are frustrated by the decision to introduce the Anglo-American system, in which they will now have to obtain a pricey master's degree to win the same recognised level of educational achievement as previously with just one degree.

John MacDonald told this news site that the Bologna Process is solely a curricular reform, "but some governments have chosen to use the impetus of the Bologna Process to institute other changes over funding and governance at the same time."

"It is more these aspects they are protesting over. Despite all you hear about the demonstrations and so on being anti-Bologna, the irony is that aspects that they are opposed to have nothing to do with the process," he said.

"They're not really anti-Bologna as such, it's about the governance changes," which, as the European Commission has no competence in education and the Bologna Process is entirely voluntary, he underscored that such changes were up to the governments themselves.

Greek riots

Some of the students have been emboldened in recent days by the ongoing youth revolt in Greece.

Mr MacDonald underscored that European institutions did attempt to take youth concerns into account into every policy area, but added that he is worried that there was something of a disconnect between political leaders and Europe's youth.

"Speaking to young people, through the European Youth Forum for example," he said, "we find that prominent amongst their concerns is fear of unemployment - it's double the rate of unemployment amongst older workers. Greece after Spain has the highest levels of youth unemployment in Europe."

"They've lost a sense of social belonging. There's a strong feeling of alienation from the society around them."

"If we have a reaction to what's happening in Greece, the French riots a few years ago and to a lesser extent in Spain - of course we don't endorse the violent actions, but that said, there's clearly a signal being sent that politicians need to be paying better attention to the concerns of young people."

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