The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 112 (Suppl.), June 2010



The “Bologna” Process and Changes

in the International Mobility of Students




Professor Ulrich Teichler

International Centre for Higher Education Research Kassel


University of Kassel, Germany



1.   Continuous Efforts to Challenge National Borders in Higher Education in Europe since the 1950s

The essence of higher education can be viewed as not confined by borders. Knowledge in various fields and the logic of science are universal; search for new knowledge ideally is not limited by borders; universities are more international in scope than most other organizations, and many scholars harbour cosmopolitan views. However, the structure and the organisation of higher education strongly shaped by individual countries (or even regional bodies within countries) and cultures, among others funding, the regulatory frame­work, governance, curricula and credentials (see Kerr 1990). The term “higher education system”, as a rule, is employed to depict a national system of higher education (see Teichler 2007).

Since the end of World War II, repeated activities to counter­act the idiosyncracies and the relative national isolation of national systems of higher education have been undertaken in the various European countries. Such policies were promoted by different supra-national actors as a short glance on the five most influential activities within four stages of development (see Teichler 2010).

In the first stage, efforts were made to increase the mutual understanding between the various European countries. In this framework, activities to facilitate student mobility played a dominant role in the hope that more detailed knowledge of other countries would dilute prejudices and increase sympathy for other ways of life and thinking. In Western Europe, the Council of Europe was active since the early 1950s to facilitate mobility through conventions signed and ratified by individual countries for the recognition of study – more precisely for the recognition of prior education as entry qualification to higher education, of periods of study for mobile students during the course of study and of degrees for mobile graduates. Similar activities were undertaken by Eastern European countries, since the 1970s for all European countries through the cooperation between the Council of Europe and UNESCO, and eventually in 1997 through the Lisbon Convention for the recognition of studies initiated again by the Council of Europe and UNESCO, this time in cooperation with the European Commission.

In the second stage, since the 1960s, most Western European countries as well as market-oriented economically advanced countries outside Europe have collaborated in the search for best ways to stimulate and accommodate the quantitative expansion of student enrolment in higher education thereby both aiming to contribute to economic growth and to the reduction inequalities of educational opportunity. The OECD (Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development), a think tank for mutual economic and social advice of the countries, suggested to expand the enrolment capacity of higher education through the upgrading and the extension of relatively short study programmes as a rule at institutions without a close link of teaching and research. As a consequence, diversification in higher education through types of higher education began to play a major role in a substantial number of European countries.

The third stage was characterized by increasing cooperation, mobility and the search for concerted European dimensions of higher education. This has initially been put forward in the political “club” named European Union since the 1990s. The ERASMUS programme, inaugurated in 1987 for the promotion of short-term student mobility within Europe, is the most prominent example of this stage.

In the fourth stage, the individual European countries jointly aimed to pursue similar higher education policies and to strive for a system convergence. In the Bologna Declaration, ministers in charge of higher education of almost 30 European countries expressed to establish a common stage structure of study programmes and degrees in 1999. Various other measures, such as the introduction of a credit system, improved information about the value of credentials through a “diploma supplement” and cooperation in “quality assurance” should contribute to structural convergence without endangering the substantive variety of study programmes and eventually lead to a “European Higher Education Area” by 2010. In the Lisbon Declaration in 2000, the European Council, i.e. the assembly of the heads of governments of the countries of the European Union, agreed to cooperate and to take joint measures of investing into research and development and eventually to establish a “European Research Area” by 2010. Notably, public and private expenditures for research and development should be increased on average to three percent of the Gross Domestic Product, thus helping to make Europe “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy of the world”.

Obviously, the efforts to change higher education in Europe in the framework what is often called the “Bologna Process” are by no means isolated activities. However, they might be viewed as the most ambitious activities to increase common characteristics of national higher education systems in Europe. 

2.   The Signing of the Bologna Declaration

A major policy move such as the Bologna Declaration of 1999 cannot be viewed merely as a sudden and surprising action. The views vary, however, as regards the major factors triggering the decision to advocate a convergent system of study programmes and degrees in Europe (see Witte 2006). It seems to be justified, though, to argue that three factors have been frequently named. First, since the 1960s there have been debates in various European countries about the most desirable patterns of the higher education system, whereby a need was felt to make relatively short study programmes more attractive in the wake of expansion of higher education. Secondly, the ERASMUS programme inaugurated by the European Com­mission in 1987 was viewed so much as a “success story” that it stimulated debates how temporary student mobility within Europe could be further spread. Thirdly, many politicians and other actors got concerned since about the mid-1990s that study in non-English-speaking European countries seemed to loose attractiveness for students from other parts of the world; the introduction of a bachelor-master structure of study programmes was considered to be a major vehicle to increase the attractiveness. Such views quickly spread notably in France and Germany. In Germany, for example, the Framework Act for Higher Education was already revised early in 1998 in order to facilitate the establishment of stages of study programmes and degrees, before joint declarations were signed across Europe.

On the occasion of an anniversary of the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1998, the ministers of education of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom declared that they would establish a “harmonized” structure of programmes and degrees. As the signing of the so-called “Sorbonne Declaration” was criticized as an isolated solo attempt of a few European countries on the one hand but as the concept as such found widespread support in other European countries as a great leap forward on the other hand, efforts were made to establish a broader basis for further action....... Continues