European Universities and the Bologna Process

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European Universities and the Bologna Process
The Bologna process, started by the Bologna Declaration on June 19, 1999, is the most significant reform in continental European higher education in 200 years. Under it, continental Europe will replace traditional diplomas and masters degrees with an Anglo-American system of three-year undergraduate and one- or two-year post graduate degrees from the start of the 2009-2010 academic year.

Germany’s attempt to form a European Higher Education Area by 2010 is a reaction to burgeoning international competition in higher education. In Germany, factors such as qualitative improvements in courses, an emphasis on graduate employability, and reductions in the length of courses, are the main concerns. Almost three quarters of the 12,300 courses at German universities now follow the new system. Furthermore, a system of easily comparable degrees has come into force.

Growing disenchantment with the Bologna process is, however, apparent among staff and students. A sociology professor has gone to court contesting the merits of the Bologna process. A German theology professor has resigned his chair, saying he cannot work in a system which is inimical to the ideals of education. German students, accustomed to the Humboldtian system, which provides ample time to pursue various interests, to travel abroad for research, and the option of completing the Diplom or Magister degree in five to seven years, also oppose the reforms. Fears have been expressed that the German higher education system, formerly a model for the whole world, will fade into insignificance.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, who created the modern university in Prussia at the beginning of the 18th century, felt that universities must foster academic freedom and not just offer training for a particular profession; universities should be autonomous, free from governmental regulation, and free to select and organize studies. Teaching and research should form an inseparable unit. He envisaged a community of teachers and students among whom independent thinking and a sense of responsibility became the mandate, method and goal of education.

As a result, the German university enjoyed worldwide acclaim until the two World Wars. Many universities in England such as Oxford, Cambridge and the famous private universities in the U.S., such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, emulated the German idea. The Humboldtian ideals led to Germany’s winning more Nobel prizes in the first thirty years of the 20th century than any other country. Germany led not only in natural sciences but also in philosophy, history, art history, philology and Indology.

Critics of Bologna say it will damage the special character of the German university and abolish the Humboldtian ideals. Furthermore, the Bologna goals are yet to be attained. The movement of students has declined considerably owing to obstacles imposed by various study programmes. Only 15% of bachelor’s students go to other countries as against 30% of students who went abroad earlier.

Yet one of the goals of Bologna is to enhance the mobility of students, teachers and researchers. It is also questionable whether the process has increased the international competitiveness of the European higher education system and enhanced employability. German engineers who studied in the old system are still much sought after. Doctors and lawyers fear a dilution in the quality of professional courses. Students with bachelor’s degrees complain that those from the old system do better in the German job market, where the new system is yet to gain full acceptance. The small and medium-scale sectors have hardly noticed the new system. In teaching and architecture there is no requirement for students with bachelor’s degrees.

Within universities, thoroughness, independent thinking, curiosity, and critical and research-orientated approaches have been replaced by ‘workload’. Some students fear that the BA/MA system will leave them no time for part-time jobs to sustain themselves. Universities are degenerating into degree mills. The students are viewed as malleable and manageable, and are trained to store knowledge rather than develop a critical consciousness. The Latin American educationist Paulo Freire called this the banking concept of education, which reduces the students to mere receptacles. Commerce holds sway over inquiry.

What might this mean for Indian students who wish to study in continental Europe? The structural differences between the Indian system of higher education once installed by the British and the new Bologna system may become minor or insignificant, irrespective of any differences between British and Indian universities. This might make it easier for Indians to study at a continental European university. But in spite of the controversial discussions about the Bologna process there are still many good reasons left to study in Europa and especially in Germany.

Some reasons provided by the German Academic Exchange Service are: the first class service for international students, wide choice of degree programmes, excellence in research, close links between theory and practice and a strong international focus with a wide range of study opportunities which promote international academic exchange.

The author was formerly at Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, and is currently conducting doctoral research on the history and politics of Latin America. The views expressed here are his own.