Main findings

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Executive Summary

Bologna With Students’ Eyes presents a reality-check of what has been agreed upon by national governments within the Bologna Process and what the actual reality is for students. Reforms discussed and recommended in an intergovernmental process on European level are not simply implemented overnight at the national and institutional level. Nevertheless, ESU’s concern has been that the information provided for the reporting on the implementation of Bologna reforms has been detached from the reality at the grassroots level, sometimes even with factual errors (either by mistake or consciously). The aim is to highlight the current status, successes and future challenges that students see in the implementation of reforms and the Process as a whole from the students’ point of view, as the main stakeholder in higher education, thus complementing the views presented in the EHEA implementation reports and reports by other stakeholders.

The data for this edition was collected by surveying ESU’s national unions of students on the following areas: student participation in governance, social dimension, quality assurance, recognition, mobility and internationalisation, structural reforms and financing of higher education. The questionnaire also included general questions about the Bologna Process and its future. In total, over 38 national unions of students responded the questionnaire, from Norway to Malta and Ireland to Armenia.

The authors of the chapters have integrated the analysis of the BWSE questionnaire together with other relevant reports and documents into the main findings. The combination of the qualitative and quantitative approach allow for presenting a full picture of how students perceive the Bologna Process and the implementation of Bologna reforms. This served as the basis for suggesting considerations for the future and recommendations that should be taken into account when ministers meet at the 2015 Ministerial Meeting to discuss and agree upon future commitments, as well as in discussions related to the structure of the Bologna Follow-Up Group for the upcoming period.

The results in this publication have shown that the original commitments of the Bologna Process are far from being evenly implemented within all participatory countries. It is clear that the main obstacle for reaching the goals of the EHEA is the lack of a minimum level of implementation of the Bologna reforms. This lack of implementation raises extreme concerns and fosters a lack of confidence in the Process among students, as after more than 15 years, the goals of the Bologna Declaration remain largely unfulfilled.

Time to Meet the Expectations from 1999
The Bologna Process has a great influence on higher education in Europe, as many European countries are reforming or have already reformed their higher education systems in light of the Bologna Declaration and the following communiqués. However, Europe is still far from achieving a fully functioning European Higher Education Area.

Since the very beginning of the Bologna Process, it has aimed to initiate a change of paradigm in the role of the students in higher education. The policy debate on learning and teaching in Europe is intensifying, much more now than even three years ago. This presents a key moment in time to address these issues head-on at a European policy level. There appears to be a momentum promoting a real paradigm shift toward a student-centred approach to learning and teaching, where the focus is on the goals of the learning process from the student’s perspective.

However, because of the lack of full implementation of the structural reforms despite the continuous commitments from the ministers in EHEA, automatic recognition is yet to become reality. Moreover, the diploma supplement is still not granted for free and automatically in every EHEA country, and the recognition procedures remain complicated and time consuming and therefore inaccessible. Recognition of prior learning appears to be at a an early stage of implementation, with rather limited impact. Recognition procedures must be accessible, clear and transparent to all applicants, without red-tape. Following the Lisbon Recognition Convention, there should be automatic recognition of degrees between the EHEA countries that have already fully implemented the Bologna structural reforms, as there would then not be any substantial differences with similar qualifications in any other EHEA country.

Higher education has multiple purposes, and when focusing on employability as one of them, higher education should always be defined in a broad sense, and never used in a way that instrumentalises education to suit narrow or short-term needs of the labour market.

Even if some progress has been made in certain areas, the prevention of discrimination of underrepresented groups in higher education must be addressed more holistically, and the groups possibly affected must be considered carefully and according to their specific needs. Not only sufficient funding, but also the further implementation of national access plans, is crucial.

After more than 15 years of the Bologna Process, many challenges exist and there is a need for rethinking the Process. Many challenges have yet to be tackled in the implementation of the reforms ministers have committed to: a lack of funding, lack of interest and lack of knowledge are just some. Rethinking the Bologna Process must entail a full reassessment of its structures, and a possible two-speed process should be evaluated. Countries must take on the responsibility to fund the reforms that they have (or should have) implemented. Involving students, academics and institutions in all discussions and decision-making regarding the Bologna Process and its implementation is key.

Progress and procrastination in the Bologna Process since 2012
Many challenges have yet to be tackled in the implementation of the reforms ministers have committed to: a lack of funding, lack of interest and lack of knowledge are just some. With the discussions on the future of the Bologna Process up for debate at the Ministerial Conference, students have weighed in on what they believe is crucial the continued success of the Process; the top priority: a restructuring to ensure proper implementation.

Student participation in higher education governance has advanced slightly in recent years with the enactment of legislation but many barriers are still in place, preventing or limiting the involvement of students at all levels. It is clear that other stakeholders have an important role in addressing the perception that students are ‘seen but not heard’ and not considered equal partners. The Bologna process has not contributed to the improvement of student participation in most countries. Effective inductions and trainings for student representatives participating in decision making structures along with continuous supports can advance the involvement of students in higher education governance.

According to National Students’ Unions the social dimension is seldom a priority on national or institutional level. The lack of clear measures taken shows the need for further action in order to prevent discrimination and to support underrepresented groups. In order to intensify the efforts to reach the goal of reflecting the diversity of society in the higher education student population, the pressing lack of funding for student support services must be addressed. Data collection may serve as a first step, but must be followed up by the implementation of concrete measures which should be supported by national access plans, among other tools.

The primary purposes of quality assurance systems are generally perceived as for enhancing the study conditions and providing transparent information. There are a considerable amount of countries where external quality assurance systems are a combination of institutional and study-programme accreditations. Meaningful participation of students in quality assurance at all levels has slightly increased and several countries had or have developed specific experts’ pool where students are included. However, there is a lack of information about QA among the student body and students generally believe that these processes are not useful because there are not any visible consequences perceived by them.

Student-centred learning has been one of the key commitments of the Bologna Process since 2009, and is closely linked with the concept of ‘learning to learn’. Much progress has been made in implementing student-centred learning, however the results of the Peer-Assessment for Student-Centred Learning study have shown that much of this has been done piecemeal, and lacks a holistic change from national to classroom level. Putting students in the centre of the learning process requires providing them with choice in curricula, assessment methods and study paths. It also means that students must be viewed as equal partners and co-producers of knowledge. Therefore, it is of utmost importance is ensuring students have a real voice in decision-making structures, affecting their daily lives.

Recognition has been analysed in terms of four aspects: the diploma supplement, recognition procedures, automatic recognition and recognition of prior learning. Because of the lack of full implementation of the structural reforms despite continuous commitments from EHEA ministers, automatic recognition is yet to become a reality. Recognition procedures remain complicated and time consuming and therefore inaccessible. The Diploma Supplement is not granted for free and automatically in every EHEA country and recognition of prior learning appears to be at an early stage of implementation with rather limited impact.

Student mobility has been at the core of the Bologna Process. Important aspects have been brought to the attention and over the years, documents have been adopted with the aim of removing obstacles to mobility programmes in order to enhance quality and widen access. Actions taken on European level, as well as the aims and goals have been met only on paper rather and not in reality, leaving student mobility still a privilege for the few. The 20% target of mobile students by 2020 has also pressured countries to prioritise quantity often at the expense of quality.

Internationalisation strategies are yet to become common in EHEA countries. There is a noticeable lack of involvement of all relevant stakeholders in the drafting, implementation and evaluation process, and there is not enough consistency in the efforts taken to adjust the higher education systems to live up to the challenges of a global reality.

Structural Reforms have been core elements of the Bologna Process, essential for fulfilling the basic aims of facilitating recognition and mobility through ensuring comparability and compatibility, as well as transparent, quality higher education. Despite their importance, it is clear that structural reforms have not been fully implemented. National unions of students report that there is a considerable lack of political will in the development and implementation of reforms. Even for the countries that have the reforms on paper, they have been superficial at best in a majority of countries, simply translating and not transforming the higher education system.

Higher education has changed during recent years with the Bologna implementation, but now, a key factor enters the game: discussions on employability and employment. While higher education must help graduates prepare for the labour market, the multiple purposes of higher education must never be forgotten. Focusing on lifelong learning, critical thinking, transversal skills and the interest of students should be the main focus in discussions on employability, not the short-term and narrow needs of the labour market today. Tools to facilitate employability, such as automatic recognition of prior learning, of general skills or of learning outcomes are still not in place. On the other hand, the social dimension can be strengthened by opening and improving access to higher education for students and learners coming from underrepresented groups which would then have better opportunities when entering the labour market.

Financing of higher education and student support systems have been disproportionately hit by austerity measures and budget cuts in recent years. The cuts to student support systems and the growing trend of converting grants into loans is creating incredible financial burdens on families and students and risk squeezing more students out of higher education. The underfunding of HEIs is leading to reductions in student services, growing tuition fees, ultimately damaging education quality. Where education budgets have not been cut but remain static, growing demand and inflation calls for greater investment.