Liberal Education

A Troubled Adolescence: What the Fifteenth Birthday of the Bologna Process Means for Liberal Education

Conceived in Paris in 1998 and born in 1999 in Bologna, the European higher education reform initiative known as the Bologna Process approaches its fifteenth birthday. As is the case with some adolescents, there are problems.

If we were to plan a party for the occasion, we might encounter diverse reflections. First, we would be proud of what our honoree has accomplished. Second, we would regret that some of the honoree’s aspirations have not been fulfilled, for reasons both indigenous and external. To be fair we would have to acknowledge how exploitation and misunderstanding have impeded Bologna’s efforts. And we would have to concede that the environment for change in recent years has proved inhospitable. Third, we would feel concerns for the future based on what we see in the present. Finally, we might find ourselves looking beyond the accomplishments, the shortfalls, and the problems to question whether the values evident in the birth and growth of the Bologna Process are likely to sustain it over the long term. If the vision of Bologna should prove insufficient to sustain its agenda, the most important accomplishment of the Bologna Process may be its having established a base camp from which a more important climb can begin.

Unprecedented accomplishment

The Bologna Process can claim significant accomplishments. According to the 1999 Declaration, within a decade there would be in place a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in which students and faculty members would enjoy greater educational mobility, records-keeping would be transformed by an improved credit and transfer system, students would receive a “diploma supplement” interpreting their academic accomplishments, “overarching” learning outcomes would provide a framework for educational qualifications profiles in every participating nation, expectations for enhanced quality assurance would be defined, and a quilt of arcane credentials and varying degree program lengths would be re-stitched into an inviting duvet of programs of comparable length and with familiar names: bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate. Informing each of these objectives was a commitment to clarify, strengthen, and promote distinctive values of European higher education. As the process evolved, it incorporated a few additional action lines: the pursuit of a “social dimension,” support for lifetime learning, and recognition of the global impact of the process. And it embraced important additional stakeholders as well, such as the European University Association, the European Students’ Union, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, and Business Europe.

Many elements of this vision have been realized. Called on to report accomplishments at meetings every two years, the ministers focused first on what could be achieved most readily. And so in 2009 when it was time to take stock of the first decade of the process, they pointed to reforms that had been accomplished primarily through governmental action: the creation of a consistent degree structure, the routine delivery of the diploma supplement, the expanded functionality of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, and the broad, if multifarious, attention given to lifetime learning. The number of nations with national quality assurance agencies has increased significantly, and thirteen countries now list agencies that have qualified for recognition by the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education.

Another measure of Bologna’s success may be found in the expansion of its membership and influence. Since 1999, the number of participating nations has increased by more than a third, from twenty-nine to forty-seven, and from a compact European footprint to one that stretches from Reykjavik (Iceland) to Vladivostok (Russia). Moreover, as David Crosier and Teodora Parveva have documented in their 2013 study for UNESCO, The Bologna Process: Its Impact in Europe and Beyond, Bologna’s influence now extends far beyond Europe, to nations from North Africa to Latin America. To this end, the European ministers agreed in 2007 to a strategy described in their white paper, European Higher Education in a Global Setting. Indeed, an important effort to build consensus in the United States regarding learning outcomes, the Degree Qualifications Profile, has clear roots in Europe’s “overarching framework.” My 2010 book, The Challenge of Bologna: What United States Higher Education Has to Learn from Europe, and Why It Matters That We Learn It, argues that many elements of Bologna Process, suitably adapted, could contribute significantly to the strengthening of US higher education.

For a comprehensive view of all that has been accomplished, both nation by nation and through the process as a whole, we can consult The European Higher Education Area in 2012: Bologna Process Implementation Report. The record is impressive. It may not be an exaggeration to describe Bologna, in the words of Crosier and Parveva’s UNESCO study, as “the most significant and transformative higher education reform process in history.”

Unfulfilled aspirations

Any fair-minded observer would have to find Bologna’s birthday goblet more than half full. But even the most positive view would have to acknowledge that there have been flaws in execution, that much remains to be accomplished, that some of the accomplishments have not led to the desired results, and that documentation of recent performance has been far from encouraging. For a complete (and remarkably candid) overview of Bologna’s shortfalls, we may consult the 2012 EHEA report mentioned above. Or we may take up the somewhat more critical review offered in Bologna with Student Eyes 2012. This report from the European Students’ Union (ESU) points to unsatisfactory progress in many areas and finds the Process “deplorably sliding backwards on some of the key action lines” (5). The picture is complex, but we may summarize areas of concern according to three categories: sluggishness, selectivity, and ambiguity.

The first area of concern involves action lines for which progress lags behind expectations. For instance, many nations have failed to meet explicit deadlines for the completion of national outcomes frameworks. As another example, while the diploma supplement may be provided routinely, acceptance and understanding by employers remains a challenge. Charts in the EHEA report show clearly which nations are in the lead on particular initiatives, which are trailing, and which appear to be having difficulty getting under way.

The second area of concern arises from the perception that some nations are choosing which initiatives to pursue and which to ignore. Because a fundamental value of the Bologna Process has been the synergy of its combined elements, what many commentators have described as a la carte approaches to implementation may call into question a nation’s commitment to the process as a whole. Here, again, the EHEA and ESU reports are revealing.

The third area of concern may be the most worrisome. It includes the perception that success in one area may have created impediments for another. As an example, wide implementation of the three-year baccalaureate, which requires an urgent and efficient curriculum, has made it more challenging for students to consider study abroad, with the result that the significantly greater mobility envisioned in the Bologna Process has not been attained. The concern also includes misgivings about whether actions taken at the ministerial level have yet had appreciable impact on teaching and learning. For instance, has the implementation of new program structures inspired curricular reform? Or did reform end in some countries with the assignment of new degree names to five-year programs brusquely divided into three-year (baccalaureate) and two-year (master’s) programs?

To this area of concern belongs also the pursuit of the “social dimension” of the process, an action line recommended by the universities and their students. Not until 2007 did the ministers clarify that this priority would focus on greater inclusiveness, a closer correspondence between the diversity of national populations and that of higher education student bodies. Since then, this priority has led to greater visibility of concerns over access, to increased understanding of the problems involved, and to some considerations of remedial policies, such as improved recognition of prior learning. But so far there appear to be few specific targets for improvement, much less any indicators of substantive gains.

Such a brief summary can do little more than suggest areas of underperformance that are doubtless inevitable in any undertaking this ambitious. The question is whether a revitalized commitment to full implementation of the Bologna Process will eventually address and resolve such issues. Or do they point to more intractable impediments?

Unsettling portents

There were signs even in the early going that the ministers might have been unrealistic so far as the initial ten-year Bologna timeline was concerned. Even by the third biennial conference, it had become apparent that not all nations—in fact, not very many—would meet the deadline for filing their completed national qualifications frameworks. As the decade continued, more problems in maintaining the anticipated pace on this and other action lines would appear, even as additional action lines were adopted. As a result, in 2007 the ministers agreed that the work of Bologna would not be complete by 2009 and would require a second ten-year term.

If the future of Bologna at this point were dependent solely on the promise inherent in the action lines, we might anticipate not only their completion within all participating nations, but also an important consolidation of gains already made. But Bologna has encountered two kinds of problems. Some are indigenous. Others have arisen from external circumstances.

Bologna’s internal woes stem largely from three limitations.

First, the process was implemented unapologetically as a top-down mandate—but one with no legal force. The ministers assumed that the kinds of reforms they had in mind at first could be achieved largely through bureaucratic will, and they were encouraged by early success. When it became apparent that the cooperation of university leaders would be essential for continued progress, the process expanded to include them. When faculty members undertook to define disciplinary learning outcomes through “tuning” discussions, Bologna recognized this effort as complementary. And when the students called for a “social dimension” to the process, the ministers listened. But the legacy of Bologna’s autocratic origins remains an impediment at the institutional level, where faculty support for Bologna hardly registers and where student resistance, though sometimes misinformed, has often become vociferous.

Second, the Bologna priorities reveal both internal contradictions and a neglect of audiences. We have already noted that the effort to shrink the baccalaureate to an urgent and pragmatic three-year program might create a challenge for the effort to persuade undergraduates to devote a semester or a year to the enlightening inefficiencies of study abroad. Similarly, the need to interpret and promote the three-year baccalaureate and the diploma supplement for employers might have been more fully acknowledged at the outset.

Finally, by avoiding the costs of creating an administrative hub for the process, preferring instead a rotation of managerial responsibilities among member states, the ministers avoided one issue, the costs of yet another centralized organizational superstructure, but have encountered another: a lack of continuity, consistency, and strategic thinking. There has been a dearth of leadership.

Beyond having to manage these internal issues, supporters of the Bologna Process have encountered several misfortunes not of their making. Most conspicuous has been the harsh and long-lasting impact on Europe of the worldwide global recession. Though designed for efficiency and economy, the Bologna Process, like any program of reform, requires funding for both practical and subjective reasons. But a 2013 report from the European Commission documents declines in spending on higher education in nearly half of the twenty-eight countries surveyed. Not surprisingly, higher education has suffered most in countries with the greatest deficits. And, not surprisingly, when funding for higher education is being reduced, funding available to support reform initiatives represents an even greater challenge.

Almost as daunting as the financial problems has been erosion in the level of commitment to European unification. From its origins, the Bologna Process has reflected the understanding that if the nations of Europe are to become more competitive internationally, they must expand their cooperation with one another, eliminate all but the most meaningful national idiosyncrasies, and measure their progress more as a community, less as an aggregation of competing countries. Three factors have arisen within the past decade to threaten this progressive view.

First, rising nationalist sentiments throughout Europe have revealed deep cracks in the façade of European unity. While the 2005 failure of EU constitutional ratifications in France and the Netherlands may have reflected concerns about the competence of the EU in economic matters more than opposition to European integration, the doubts threw a stumbling block in the path toward increased unification. Since then, virtually every month has brought reports of dissention. Most recently, fractious pronouncements during the spring 2013 effort to reach agreement on an EU budget offered a reminder that tensions continue to develop. A computer search on the issue “EU discord,” though of dubious value as a research technique, will turn up 1,280,000 results! Some countries are experiencing this pressure on two fronts, internal and external. For example, the UK now faces two critical referendums, one, in 2014, on the issue of Scottish independence, the other, scheduled for 2017, on the UK’s membership in the EU.

Second, proponents of nationalism have found an advantage in concerns about the economic stability of some EU nations. If the shared currency, the euro, depends on agreements that successful economies must direct assistance to those encountering problems, the euro’s days may be numbered. Objections in Germany to the so-called 2012 “bailout” of Greece are a conspicuous indicator of growing concerns as to the sustainability of such arrangements.

A final factor so far as European unity is concerned lies in one dimension of Bologna’s success. By accepting into the process newcomers such as Russia and many of the former Soviet republics, the Bologna Process embraced a far broader spectrum of practice, principle, and process. That diversity appears in results reported in the 2012 EHEA report, which reveals that more recent Bologna arrivals from the East are as a rule less likely to document across-the-board progress. Strong contrasts between significant progress in some action lines and very little in others, though in part a reflection of their different start dates, suggest that the a la carte approach may have expanded also.

Two other external distractions deserve brief mention. First, the Bologna Process has provided protective cover for some European political leaders pursuing their own agendas for change in higher education. Some have cited the Bologna Process in effecting changes in higher education funding and in governance when any connection between such initiatives and Bologna is peripheral at best. By contrast, and equally as damaging, some European political and educational leaders have announced important higher education reform initiatives without mentioning the Bologna Process. Both trends—Bologna as protective cover, Bologna as afterthought—threaten the durability of the Bologna Process.

It may in time become apparent that the current period of “EU discord” has been but an aberration in the continent’s otherwise fairly steady progress toward economic, political, and academic integration. But it could also be the case that the portents of the past few years point to continuing erosion in a sense of European community. Much hangs in the balance—including the Bologna Process.

A question of vision

The origins of Bologna were unambiguously autocratic, utilitarian, economic, and Euro-centric. Europe would once again become the world’s preeminent higher educator, more competitive, more attractive to international students, and its more efficient, effective, and well-coordinated systems of higher education would fuel the European economy. In the short term, the pragmatism of these objectives probably facilitated their implementation. The first stages, those of programmatic restructuring, a broader mandate for the credit registry, and a commitment to the diploma supplement, required primarily state-level governmental support. That such support was in general made available within an urgent time frame responded to the consistent focus on European political and intellectual ascendency and a clear link between education reform and economic growth.

Since then, Bologna has evolved in several positive ways—in part because of the influence of students and university leaders, in part because of growth and turnover in the ranks of Bologna education ministers, and in part because the path to success has proved more problematical than earlier envisioned. But as Bologna approaches its fifteenth birthday, it must appeal to the public, to university leaders, to faculty members, and to students if its reforms are to take root and strengthen learning. There’s the rub. While a generous reading of the Bologna Declaration and ensuing documents may trust that they somehow reflect broader assumptions concerning education’s capacity to engage students in different ways of knowing and stimulate their appetite for disinterested learning, there is little evidence of attention to such values.

To the contrary, following accomplishment of the initial priorities, the limitations of Bologna’s objectives have become increasingly apparent. For one thing, the advertised link between educational reform and economic development, while remaining theoretically intact, has become less persuasive during a protracted recession. For another, students have found that their restructured programs allow little space for any but the most restrictive programs of study. Universities have sometimes found themselves junior partners in discussion of their most vital interests. And employers, consulted infrequently in the early stages, have expressed through their hiring preferences a skepticism concerning new program structures and new credentials.

Hence more recent stages of implementation requiring the engagement of higher education in defining what students should know and be able to do have proved more challenging. For instance, if the development of a national educational outcomes framework is to influence learning as it is achieved and measured, it must embody the experience and wisdom of university authorities, of faculty members, and of students. But the discussion required for framing meaningful, practical, and engaging learning objectives at a national level must necessarily move beyond utilitarian objectives if they are eventually to inspire commitment by those essential to their accomplishment.

When we turn to the “overarching framework of qualifications of the EHEA” for guidance in terms of the educational vision guiding the Bologna Process, what we find are highly utilitarian standards of competence in a “field of study.” A first cycle (baccalaureate) qualification should provide “knowledge and understanding” commensurate with “a professional approach to their work or vocation.” Degree recipients should be able “to form judgments that include reflection on relevant social, scientific or ethical issues.” And they should have the skills to succeed in further study. Students pursuing the second cycle should build on what they have accomplished in the first, apply what they have learned to a broader range of environments, and have the ability to “communicate their conclusions, and the knowledge and rationale underpinning these, to specialist and non-specialist audiences clearly and unambiguously.” The distinctive elements of the third cycle include “the ability to conceive, design, implement and adapt a substantial process of research with scholarly integrity.” Doctoral students are to extend “the frontier of knowledge.”

Where within that statement or within any of the statements developed through the Bologna Process do we find a summons to address “big questions, both contemporary and enduring”? Where do we find an emphasis on creativity, problem solving, teamwork? Where is there the expectation for “intercultural knowledge and competence”? Where the understanding that knowledge must be “anchored through active involvement with diverse communities”? And, perhaps most to the point, where is there the acknowledgement that learning must be integrative, seeking beyond “a field of study” the expanding knowledge that can be found only at the boundaries between such fields?

These references to the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (2007) Essential Learning Outcomes offer a useful critique of expectations that remain resolutely utilitarian. With the model of the Essential Learning Outcomes in mind, we may find it difficult to avoid the impression that implementation of the Bologna Process has stalled in part because of a continuing hollowness at the core, the lack of a compelling vision of higher education that can speak to those most directly engaged in its pursuit.

To conclude optimistically, that may change. As universities become more deeply engaged with the Bologna Process in the remaining years of its tenure, particularly with the effort to interpret and implement national learning outcomes, an expanded Bologna vision may emerge, as what has so far been accomplished provides a platform for discussions that could lead Europeans and their colleagues throughout the world to recognize and revisit important questions of purpose and meaning. Having offered the United States a valuable example through its logistical reforms and innovative tools, perhaps Europe’s higher education leaders might now consider accepting an example in return, namely, that of the advantages inherent in the American commitment to liberal education for a nation “going to college.” Perhaps those dedicated to the success of the Bologna Process are already beginning to move in this direction. They have come a long way, after all. But they have a long way to go.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities,

Confederation of EU Rectors’ Conferences and the Association of European Universities. 1999. The Bologna Declaration on the European Space for Higher Education: An Explanation. Brussels: European Commission,

Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education. “Framework of Qualifications for the European Higher Education Area.” Bergen, Norway: Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, http://www.bologna

Crosier, D., and T. Parveva. 2013. The Bologna Process: Its Impact in Europe and Beyond. Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, 220649e.pdf.

European Students’ Union. 2012. Bologna with Student Eyes 2012. Brussels: European Students’ Union,

Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency. 2012. The European Higher Education Area in 2012: Bologna Process Implementation Report. Brussels: Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency,

———. 2013. Funding of Education in Europe 2000–2012: The Impact of the Economic Crisis. Brussels: Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency,

Gaston, P. L. 2010. The Challenge of Bologna: What United States Higher Education Has to Learn from Europe, and Why It Matters That We Learn It. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. 2007. European Higher Education in a Global Setting. Oslo: Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research,

Paul L. Gaston is Trustees Professor at Kent State University. The author thanks Tim Birtwistle, professor emeritus at Leeds Metropolitan University, who has served the UK as an appointed “Bologna Expert” since 2003. He reviewed a draft of this essay and offered valuable suggestions for its revision.

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