Sunday

24th Jan 2021

Opinion

Academic rebellion against Bolognese bureaucracy justified

Ten years after the start of the ‘Bologna Process' – which aims to make university degrees comparable and compatible across Europe – higher education ministers are meeting to compare notes on 27-29 April. Yet their Louvain meeting is being faced by a counter summit, a ‘European wave' of students and academics opposed to the process.

The Bologna Process has sparked rebellion almost since its inception, including strikes in France in 2002-3 and 2007; 5000 students demonstrating in Zagreb, Croatia in 2008 and a series of marches and walkouts in German and Italian universities. The strongest resistance has been in Spain, with around 40 assembleas organising around the campaign website ‘noabolonia.org'; there are particular strongholds in the universities of Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia, with numerous student demos and occupations of university buildings.

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Critics say the Bologna Process exposes public universities to the strictures of the international market. Spanish protesters call it a ‘neo-liberal offensive' that is ‘trying to attack and dismantle the high-quality public education system'. It will remove student grants, they say, make education more expensive, and mean that students cannot work alongside their degrees.

Certainly, the architects of Bologna talk a neo-liberal language, aiming to build the ‘most competitive knowledge economy in the world'. But Spanish officials have set up a rival website, ‘queesbolonia.es' (‘what is Bologna?'), which takes on students' objections. Bologna will not stop them from working, insist officials who say that the process will actually make education cheaper rather than more expensive.

The Bologna Process is perhaps not so much about marketisation, as bureaucratisation: it means the reorganisation of higher education not around the market, but around a series of tick-box standards. All universities must have the same three basic types of degrees, based on a BA (usually three years), MA (two years), and a doctorate (three years). All universities will use the same credit system – called the ‘European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System' (ECTS) - which could be exchanged across Europe. One academic year equals 60 ECTS credits, which is the equivalent of 1500-1800 hours of study. All degrees and degree evaluation will be of the same ‘standard'.

The Bologna process has meant the restructuring of European universities in line with formula: x hours study = y credits = z degree. This can only breed intellectual confusion.

If a four-year course is made three years overnight, or a one-year made two years, not because professors changed their methods but because European politicians decided that degrees should be the same length, course material will be squashed or drawn out to fit the requisite boxes. A degree becomes not a measurement from within the academic community, which students enter into, learn from and then are tested by - instead, a degree is a form of bureaucratic measurement.

More European academic collaboration would be surely a good thing. Yet Bologna is not about academics sharing ideas about their subjects or pedagogy. Instead, it imposes an identikit standard over vastly different academic systems. Universities do not have the same ‘standard'. Some are better than others, but, more profoundly, they teach the same course in different ways, according to different schools of thought. This applies for two universities in the same city. How much more so between Slovenia and Italy, Spain and Germany? Higher education courses emerge out of different communities of scholars; they cannot be broken down so easily into units of equal size, shape and weight.

It could indeed be that a three-degree system is the best way to go, but this decision must emerge from discussions among European academics. The problem, as one French professor said, is that Bologna has been a series of decisions imposed ‘without any political debate'. Unfortunately, it is the bureaucrats who are the players in the ‘European space', and it is they alone who define what is a ‘European education'.

No doubt the anti-Bologna summit will be typecast as conservative and inward-looking. A recent opinion piece in El Pais said that students and professors were afraid of the Bologna process because they did not like change and were lazy. One Spanish pro-Bologna website presents this as the choice of all forward-looking students, with a series of pop-video-style presentations with students preparing presentations on their laptops and exclaiming ‘We are all Bologna!', ‘Dynamic!', ‘Windows!', ‘Graduates without frontiers!'.

The anti-Bologna summit aims to create an alternative European space, which is an admirable goal and means that students and academics can keep their gaze forwards and outwards. One task might be to develop a critique of the bureaucratisation of higher education across Europe, of which the Bologna process is just a part. And also to strengthen the process of European academic dialogue, so that the academy can assert its right to decide for itself how long its degrees should last.

Josie Appleton is chair of the UK-based Manifesto Club, the publishers of the EU Phrasebook: No Doesn't Really Mean No'.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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