Structrual Reforms

Structural reforms provide the tools to enable comparability, compatibility and trust between countries in order to ensure that students can move freely within Europe by facilitating the recognition of their qualifications. Additionally, they aim to improve the quality of higher education by providing the transparency necessary to communicate the qualifications and learning outcomes students are expected to achieve or have achieved.

This chapter reviews the major developments and students’ perspectives on the implementation of three core components of the structural reforms: qualifications frameworks, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and the three-cycle degree system. The three components must be considered holistically however, as without the proper implementation of ECTS, a true three-cycle system cannot be established and without a three-cycle system, qualifications obtained within the higher education system cannot be referenced properly within a qualifications framework. Successful implementation demands an understanding of each of the reforms interdependence.

Main findings
The implementation of structural reforms in EHEA is clearly visible and recognised by students. While some tools have been fully implemented in a few countries, many countries struggle with the full implementation and the transition required for some of the most central reforms of the Bologna Process. The implementation of a functioning national qualifications framework (NQF) remains a major challenge for a vast majority of countries. ECTS has been implemented in many countries, but often only superficially, without using workload and learning outcomes as the basis for awarding ECTS. The three-cycle system has also been implemented in a majority of EHEA countries, however there are large variations in understandings of what constitutes a bachelors, masters or doctoral degree. Students identified a lack of political will and consistency while implementing these structural reforms in their respective countries and continue to demand greater involvement in their development and implementation on national and institutional level.

Qualifications Frameworks
National Qualifications Frameworks (NQF) have the aim of facilitating the compatibility and comparability of degrees, essential for mobility and recognition, both cornerstones of the Bologna Process. Considering their importance, alarmingly only 13 out of 38 unions responded that there is an national qualifications framework in their country and it is always being used. Even worse, only five unions stated that they are very satisfied with the development and introduction of it in their country. Eighteen unions reported that even though a qualifications framework has been established in their country, they see little to no usage of it.


Reasons for that vary but it is mostly due to the lack of political will for its implementation and carrying out of the process. Most of the respondents pointed out that the process has been rather slow, and NQF were artificially created and often copied from other countries. Some of the problems arose when referencing to the EHEA Qualifications Framework (EHEA QF), when differences between national contexts have been a major concern, sometimes inhibiting further development and proper implementation. The EHEA QF awards levels according to the learning outcomes achieved and the workload, and as we will see with the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, learning outcomes and workload are disregarded or calculated or developed incorrectly in a number of countries.


Another major challenge unions reported in the implementation of NQF is that while an NQF has been developed and in certain cases also referenced to the EHEA QF, there is very little knowledge about it, what purpose it serves and any recent developments of it. In Romania, ANOSR reported that, “We have a NQF adopted, we participated in its elaboration, but almost no one knows about it and it is not used by HEI.” As we also see from the previous answer, this leads to situations like the one in the Czech Republic, where SK RVŠ stated that, “NQF is not used at all at any HEIs. It’s only on paper.”

Another cornerstone of the Bologna Process is the ECTS, which also contributes to facilitating mobility and recognition through improving comparability and compatibility. The idea is also to ensure transparency and readability for students and other stakeholders through using learning outcomes and workload as the basis for allocating ECTS credits. Through this students and other stakeholders can understand what students will learn or have learned and how much time is or has been required of them.

Over two-thirds of the unions (27 of 38) stated that ECTS has been implemented and is in use in their respective countries, although only four agreed that they are very satisfied with its implementation. Out of those, only 11 unions reported that ECTS credits are allocated based on the formulation of learning outcomes, and only one-fourth (9 out of 35 unions) stated that workload is used as the basis for determining ECTS credits throughout the entire higher education system.

In many cases, objections to the current implementation and usage of ECTS are related to an arbitrary system for allocating ECTS credits. Unions reported that the implementation was often superficial, where countries had simply translated the number of credits from their previous system to ECTS credits, sometimes by simply using a mathematical formula. This is the case for Lithuania, for instance. “When Lithuania switched to ECTS credits the national credits were simply calculated on a mathematical principle (x1.5) which had nothing to do with workload and LO's.”


Significant problems were also identified where countries continue to have parallel national credit systems, causing mismatch in attempts to translate between the two systems and creating issues with recognition not only on the European Level, but also within students’ own countries. According to the Student Union of Latvia (LSA), which stated that, “As we still have our own credits system parallel to ECTS, some institutions do not accumulate ECTS correctly (1 national credit point is 1,5 ECTS).”

The allocation of ECTS credits should be based on learning outcomes and workload, where the learning outcomes of study programmes are designed to describe the learning activities and the workload is an estimation of the total time students will need in order to achieve the intended learning outcomes (European Commission 2009). However, in the cases where workload is used as the basis for allocating ECTS credits, it is often estimated incorrectly and unrealistically. For many countries, learning outcomes continue to be disregarded, their purpose is misunderstood, or they are developed incorrectly or half-heartedly, by either describing them too generally and/or without the representation and views of students. This is echoed by CREUP in Spain, which reported, “The estimation of the workload was not realistic and it is much higher that the hours related with the ECTS. Aside from this, the learning outcomes and the allocation of ECTS are not related as for you can have small courses with not many ECTS with many learning outcomes.” UASS confirmed this as well, “The formulation of LOs in Ukraine is not adequate. Students have too much heavy workload,” and VSS-UNES-USU in Switzerland stated similar concerns, “There is so much inconsistency regarding the estimation of the workload in between HEIs, even between different study subjects in the same HEI.”

Three-Cycle System
An additional core Bologna reform is the three-cycle system, which forms the basis for the division of the degrees between bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The term 3+2 explains the system of the bachelor's degree, which is to consist of 3 years and 180 ECTS credits, while the master’s degree consists of 2 years and 120 credits (in some cases, 4+1 where the bachelors is 240 ECTS credits and a master’s degree is 60 ECTS credits).


24 of 38 unions stated that the three-cycle system has been implemented and is being used consistently, although only nine responded that they are very satisfied with the implementation of the system. Many countries have chosen to retain an integrated 5-year system, combining the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in certain fields. Superficial implementation is again identified as the major challenge by a large number of respondents, where there is no clear differentiation between the bachelor’s and master’s degrees and countries have reportedly simply divided their previous degree systems to fit the technical specifications of the three-cycle system. This was identified in countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Croatia and Estonia. This has led to a devaluation of the bachelor’s degree, making many students feel forced to complete a master’s degree in order to have a sufficient qualification. Over two-thirds of the respondents (25 out of 38) stated that either all or most students enroll in a master’s programme directly following the completion of their bachelor’s degree. Problems with access to master’s programmes were also identified as a result of the large demand for entering the second cycle.

Another major challenge is a lack of consistency in the length and/or number of ECTS credits for each cycle. For instance, some master’s degrees are 60 credits, some 90 and some 120, which creates a major challenge for mobility and recognition of foreign qualifications. Therefore, a number of unions called for a universal model to be established. SSU in Slovenia stated that, “It changed nominally, the structure remained the same. Furthermore, some subjects that used to last two semester were just reduced, and part of content is neglected.”


Nearly half of the unions (17 of 38) reported that their countries also restrict access to part-time studies, an essential component in promoting the social dimension, increasing access to higher education, enabling lifelong learning and the implementation of student-centred learning; each core commitments of the Bologna Process. The flexibility that the three-cycle system provides should accommodate for the flexibility in study paths necessary for creating functioning and inclusive part-time studies. Many students face an ad-hoc structure of part-time studies, where part-time students are enrolled in an “external form of studies” (Slovakia) or students can take as many ECTS credits as they wish, but there are no formally recognised part-time studies (Iceland). In many countries, students also face major financial problems for part-time studies, where students do not have access to student financial support or they are required to pay fees, even in countries, which claim to have tuition-fee free higher education (Denmark).

Additionally, over two-thirds (27 of 38) of the unions reported that their countries place restrictions on how many terms (semesters) a student can take to complete each cycle, and an additional seven state that it varies from one higher education institution to another. 21 of 35 unions report financial consequences for not completing the cycle within the expected number of terms (semesters), 25 face expulsion and seven face higher tuition fees. In Sweden, students face the consequence of being no longer provided with guidance and support, entirely counterproductive when students struggle with completing their studies and may also be failing courses.


Twenty three of thirty seven unions responded that their countries allow exceptions for delays in students’ studies for illness. Twenty stated that exceptions are made for parental leave and six for employment. Others referred to exceptions made for jury duty or military service. Absolutely no exceptions are made according to seven unions. Providing as much flexibility with exceptions for special circumstances is essential for ensuring that students can pass between the cycles, thus improving the social dimension of higher education, which ministers have committed to in many Ministerial Communiqués (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2001, 2005, 2009, 2012). For instance, parental leave should be ensured, together with supplementary grants for this time, must be provided for all students, and students should be provided flexible leave schemes for illness and/or disability, covering both physical and psychological illness and any other non-visible disability and allowing for part-time and full-time leave. Lastly, considering the importance of student governance and representation in decision-making structures, shockingly only seven out of 37 respondents report that there are exceptions for delays due to mandates in student unions.

Conclusions and considerations for the future
Based on the results, we can clearly see that there is a lack of sufficient implementation of the very core Bologna Process reforms. Students are dissatisfied with the lack of political will for full implementation, and countries appear not to have understood the need for a holistic approach to each of the reforms. In many countries, student unions have reported that the transition from their previous systems has been superficial.

The allocation of ECTS credits has been based simply on a mathematical calculation from the countries previous credit systems, and in some cases there is even a parallel system, neither reflecting the requirements of the ECTS basing ECTS credits on the learning outcomes and workload. The three-cycle degree structure has also in many cases been implemented in a superficial manner, where there is no clear differentiation between the different cycles and countries have retained their former degree structure simply dividing it to fit the 3+2 (4+1) model.

Countries also continue to lack an understanding of the importance of flexibility within the three cycles and the commitments ministers have made in regards to the social dimension improving access to education. This involves ensuring part-time studies, granting exceptions for delays in students’ studies for parental leave, employment, student representation and governance, illness and disabilities, etc., and providing the guidance and support students need in case of delays in their studies. There is also a lack of both the development and implementation of NQFs, where the process is stalled or the purpose is unclear for higher education institutions and those responsible for the actual implementation.

Considering the importance of the structural reforms as a method of building trust between countries, improving the quality of higher education, ensuring transparency and better information provision for students and other stakeholders, it is shocking that countries continue to fail in the implementation of core Bologna commitments. Without proper implementation, we cannot reach the main aims of the Bologna Process, such as recognition and the freedom for students and staff to move freely throughout the EHEA.

  • Countries must make a holistic effort in full implementation of all structural reforms
Qualifications frameworks, the ECTS and the three-cycle degree structure are interdependent reforms, in which successful implementation requires an understanding of their interdependence. For instance, the three-cycle degree structure, a part of qualifications frameworks, is dependent on correct ECTS credit allocation, based on learning outcomes and the workload expected to achieve the intended learning outcomes. Countries cannot select the reforms in an “à la carte” manner, but must dedicate time and resources to even implementation of all reforms.

  • Establish incentives such as automatic recognition for those who have implemented the core structural reforms
Uneven implementation of the structural reforms defeats the purpose of the Bologna Process. In order to build trust between countries in order to meet the core goals of the Process, mobility and recognition, countries must have all structural reforms in place. Having agreed to the implementation of NQFs, including the necessary ECTS (endorsed in 1999) and three-cycle structure reforms, already in 2005 and to be fully implemented by 2010, countries can reasonably be expected to have completed the implementation process by 2015. As this is not the case, incentives should be established to boost efforts in implementing each of the reforms. A good tool could be automatic recognition for the countries that have achieved full implementation of the structural reforms.

  • Implementation must be a transformation, not simply a translation from their previous structures
Successful implementation of the structural reforms requires a full transformation of the structures of countries’ higher education systems. Many countries have implemented a superficial system of mathematical calculations and copy-paste reforms without a clear differentiation from their previous systems. Countries cannot simply translate their previous credit allocation systems into ECTS credits or divide their previous degree structure into three cycles, but must redesign their systems to match the content of the structural reforms.

  • ECTS must be based on learning outcomes and workload, in line with the ECTS Users’ Guide
Countries must use the ECTS Users’ Guide in ECTS credit allocation, basing ECTS credits on learning outcomes that clearly describe the learning activities and the workload expected by students to complete all of the learning activities and achieve the intended learning outcomes. Workload should be estimated reasonably and accurately, not based on the subjective importance and difficulty of the course. According to the revised ECTS Users’ Guide to be endorsed by ministers at the 2015 EHEA Ministerial Conference in Yerevan, “workload ranges from 1,500 to 1,800 hours for an academic year, which means that one credit corresponds to 25 to 30 hours of work” (European Higher Education Area Bologna Follow-Up Group 2015, 4). However, this should also take into account that students have different learning needs and styles, and therefore this is purely an estimation and individual students actual time to achieve the intended learning outcomes may vary (ibid.)

  • A unified three-cycle degree structure must be established with a clear differentiation between the cycles
Problems in recognition arise when a student originating from a country with a 180 ECTS credit bachelor’s degree apply for a master’s degree in a country that requires a 240 ECTS credit bachelors for entrance into the second cycle. Likewise, when applying for recognition of the second cycle with 120 credits, students can be denied recognition of foreign qualifications from countries with 60 or 90 ECTS credit master’s degrees. To facilitate recognition and implementation that will benefit students, countries should consider unifying the three-cycle degree structure, but also ensure that there is a clear differentiation between the first, second and third cycles, so as to allow for new learning experiences, interdisciplinarity and the devaluation of the second cycle.

  • Countries must establish proper part-time study programmes
The flexibility that the three-cycle degree structure enables should ensure that students are provided with the option of studying part-time. Part-time studies require specially designed programmes and countries’ and higher education institutions’ dedication to solving any logistical challenges that may arise. Part-time students require additional guidance and support throughout their studies. Tuition fees and limitations in student financial support must not be imposed on part-time students. Rather, part-time studies should be viewed as a natural part of improving access to higher education and enabling lifelong learning.

  • Countries must allow for flexible learning paths and provide guidance and support in case of delays
One of the aims of the three-cycle degree structure is to allow for flexibility, which also ensures the transformation to a student-centred approach and improving the social dimension. Students must be given a reasonable timeframe for completing their studies, while also allowing for both full- and part-time leave for parental leave and physical, psychological and non-visible illness and disabilities and providing additional financial support during these periods. Exceptions must also be granted for employment, extracurricular activities and participation in student governance and representation, military duties and other cases which naturally give reason for delays in studies. Students who experience delays in their studies must be offered guidance and support, rather than financial punishment such as limiting student financial support, imposing higher tuition fees, or expulsion.

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Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2007). London Communiqué. Towards the European Higher Education Area: Responding to Challenges in a Globalized World.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2009). The Bologna Process 2020—The European Higher Education Area in the New Decade. Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, 28–29 April 2009.

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