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Thirteen years into the Bologna Process

The German Ministry of Education introduced the bachelor’s-master’s system with the goal of improving education and career opportunities as well as increasing the efficiency of academic education and research. Thirteen years after the signing of the Bologna Declaration in 1999, the transition to the bachelor’s-master’s system is far from complete.

The old town of Bologna. The photo shows the historical university building to the right of the marketplace. © EJ

Outside Italy, very few people associate the word “Bologna” with the venerable city of Bologna, which is situated on the edge of the River Po drainage basin and is home to the oldest university in Europe: “Bologna la dotta” – the learned one – founded in 1088, almost 300 years before the University of Heidelberg. The city’s nickname “Bologna la grassa “ (the fat one) referring to the city’s meat dish, is also barely known in Germany despite the fact that everybody knows a dish named after the city despite the fact that the people of Bologna do not serve Bolognese sauce with their spaghetti. 

In 1999, the Ministers of Education (or their representatives) of 29 European states (all current EU member states with the exception of Cyprus, along with Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) met in Bologna to adopt a joint declaration that proposed a European Higher Education Area. Ever since, the name Bologna has been associated with the reform of higher education systems and the introduction of the bachelor’s-master’s system. Bologna would be less well-known if the reform, which was due to be completed in Germany in 2010, had been unanimously considered successful. However, the reality of the situation is that opinions differ widely as to whether the Bologna Process has been successful or not.

Degrees with relevance for the labour market?

The major goal of the reform was to introduce bachelor’s and master’s degrees at all European universities, i. e. the "adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate. Access to the second cycle shall require successful completion of first cycle studies, lasting a minimum of three years. The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The second cycle should lead to the master's and/or doctorate degree as in many European countries." (quote from the Bologna Declaration)

In the meantime, many students who have been awarded a bachelor’s degree after the first cycle have found that their qualification is not relevant to the European labour market to the extent anticipated by the education ministers when they met in Bologna in 1999. It must of course be taken into account that it takes time for innovations to replace traditional patterns of thought and for human resources managers to recognize bachelor's degrees as a full academic degree. Bachelor's graduates could be forgiven for feeling cynical about the promises when they fail to enter higher public service careers. Even students in Great Britain and the USA, which provide the models for the new system, complain that it is difficult to find a decent job with “just” a bachelor's degree – at a time when the number of young people unemployed is far higher than it has ever been.

An all-in-one solution

Prof. Dr. Heinz-Dietrich Löwe

The creators of the bachelor’s-master’s system anticipated that the “system of easily readable and comparable degrees” in the entire European Higher Education Area would enable students to freely move between countries. The historian Professor Dr. Heinz-Dietrick Löwe, former dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and first spokesperson of the Senate of Universität Heidelberg explains: “Bachelor’s courses per se and par excellence strongly discourage mobility; what has been happening in England and America over a great many years has clearly shown this to be true.” The historian compared the invention of bachelor’s and master’s programmes to a Swiss army knife, an all-in-one device suitable for every purpose. Although the politicians did not expressly state it, it can be safely assumed that the real reason behind the implementation of the Bologna Process was to reduce the number of students and reduce education costs by limiting the study time of the vast majority of students to three years and envisaging the master’s degree for a much smaller number of students. At the same time, the reforms were expected to considerably reduce the high dropout rate without the need to increase the number of scholarships or improve university facilities. However, the low attractiveness of the bachelor’s degree in the labour market means that the universities have had to broaden access to master’s degrees. So the result is that there have been no cost reductions; in actual fact, quite the opposite is true. In contrast to the politicians’ initial expectations, accredited bachelor’s courses actually have a much higher teaching workload than the previous system. 

The German Cultural Ministers Conference and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s 2009-2012 National Report on the implementation of the goals of the Bologna Process came to the conclusion that student mobility has increased (and is set to improve further) since the reforms were implemented, the acceptance of bachelor’s graduates in the careers market has increased and the bachelor’s degree has opened up a plethora of career options. “As far as public service careers are concerned, the German government and states offer development opportunities for bachelor’s graduates and are assessing possibilities for improvement.” According to the report, the German Länder found “that master’s degree places are available for any interested bachelor’s graduate. The goal is to facilitate the possibility of registering for a master’s degree course by providing sufficient places on master’s courses. The development of demand and supply in the master’s area will be closely monitored over the coming years.” One possible interpretation of this statement could be that the governments are admitting that there are problems.

Prof. Dr. Annette Schavan - German Minister of Education and Research © Bundesregierung.de

In an interview with “DIE ZEIT” on 23rd February 2012, German Research Minister Professor Dr. Annette Schavan said she saw Bologna “as the right answer to the challenges in a society in which almost 50 per cent of a year level are studying and will therefore only make it in the international job market with the highest possible academic qualifications”, further highlighting that although Germany did not take account of the content-related dimension in the same way as the structural questions in the implementation process, the Bologna reform is, taken overall, a success story. Now that 85 per cent of degree courses have switched to the new degree formats, the time is once again ripe to debate the content. Right from the word go in the Bologna Process, the universities wanted to carry out course reform themselves. Professor Löwe believes that problems with the bachelor’s and master’s courses can only be solved by refraining as much as possible from establishing a rigid framework of courses and ensuring that there are as many different competing models as possible. He also believes that universities should not necessarily insist that a bachelor’s course lasts six semesters and a bachelor's and master’s course together, ten semesters, despite the fact that a major element of the Bologna reform was to reduce the relatively long study times in Germany in comparison to other countries.

The connection between Humboldt and Bologna

The German Fundamental Law and the higher education laws of the German states stipulate the freedom of education, resulting in the fact that German universities are largely self-regulatory and can determine their curriculums themselves. Policymakers only determine the general conditions, which are designed to be flexible. Many universities in Germany feel that it is necessary to enable students to look beyond their own discipline in the strongly organized bachelor’s system. The University of Freiburg has just send out a clear signal through the establishment of its “University College” which offers the four-year (!) English-language bachelor's course “Liberal Arts and Sciences”, which combines general studies with language courses and a major – a thorough training in a specific academic field of science/humanities – with a curriculum that also enables students to pursue further studies of their choice or additional training necessary for admission into master’s programmes.

“The spirit of universities post-Humboldt is not dead.” Statue of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Unter den Linden, Berlin. © Humboldt University of Berlin

Many other examples of new study programmes in which theoretical education and vocational training has been combined show that the spirit of universities post-Humboldt is not dead despite the much-maligned economic restructuring of university studies. “21st century universities still attach great importance to science-based education,” said Schavan. She further highlighted that it is up to politicians to give incentives and ensure that the necessary financial means are available. In 2010, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research announced a two-billion-euro funding programme called “quality pact for teaching”, which aims to come up with convincing answers to the solutions to the structures required by the Bologna Process, i.e. provide financial support to professors and faculties which develop a teaching concept that entails better student care. The minister explained that she had convened a high-calibre council of experts who have been looking into the question as to how Humboldt and Bologna can be brought together for many years now. This council is expected to come up with solutions at the national Bologna conference later this year where representatives from all faculties of the Association of German Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions in Germany, the German Cultural Ministers Conference and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research will be present.

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