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The selection of the University of Bologna as the place for 29 education ministers to sign a groundbreaking higher education deal in 1999 was more than prescient. Yes, it is Europe’s oldest university, founded in 1088. But as no Italian university now appears in the top 100 of any recognised global university ranking, Bologna is also a persistent reminder of just how far continental Europe has fallen behind the competition.

For a decade before the Bologna meeting, European leaders had discussed the need to create some kind of standardisation across higher education.

Having declared that “a Europe of knowledge is …widely recognised as an irreplaceable factor for social and human growth”, the Bologna Accord aims to make European higher education more competitive by replacing 47 different systems (Kazakhstan was the latest nation to sign up) with a single format: bachelor, masters and doctorate degrees are earned in three, two and three years, respectively.

The Bologna Accord was – and remains – a declaration of intent, but does not carry the weight of an intergovernmental treaty or an EU law. Most of the signatory countries still have a two-cycle system (that is, a combined BA and MA, and a separate PhD). Progress towards the three-cycle system described above, and towards a standardised system of credits, has been slow and uneven over the past decade.

However, some countries have been quicker to implement changes than others. In Germany and France, the declaration has been a timely reason to replace long, expensive courses funded by the taxpayer with shorter, more work-focused degrees. In Spain, Bologna is cited as the reason for introducing postgraduate fees. In eastern Europe, governments have used the accord as an opportunity for reinventing universities stuck in the communist era.

A task force created by the Graduate Management Admissions Council announced that the end result of the accord should be a single market of roughly 2m bachelor graduates each year, including 500,000 business masters students. It is a market worth billions of euros – but the effect of these changes on business schools will be felt globally.

Universities that had previously offered integrated five-year business degrees now have to launch standalone pre-experience masters programmes – GMAC estimates 10,000 new programmes in business and economics, many of them delivered in English. These should help continental schools compete for students from developing markets such as China and India, who currently go primarily to the major English-speaking countries.

With China and India having both announced ambitious plans to develop their university sectors and attract international students, European universities and business schools face a tough enough battle just to protect existing revenues from overseas students.

“The real winners will be the university and business school brands that can attract large numbers and where the language is English,” says Kai Peters, chief executive of Ashridge Business School and joint chair of the GMAC Bologna task force. “The London School of Economics, for example, is suddenly a real player, as are other schools that appear in the pre-experience rankings. In the MBA world, Bologna has meant that new MBA programmes have been popping up like mushrooms all over the continent.

“Universities and schools with lesser brands may well collect bachelors students locally but will lose them to bigger brands at masters stage,” says Prof Peters. “Other schools, especially the smaller new entrants to the MBA, will lose as they will not gather critical mass for their efforts. Many mid-sized schools will also suffer from a fragmented market with too many players.”

European universities and business schools will also have to adapt to students who are increasingly mobile and willing to cross borders – secure in the knowledge that the quality of their study is assured. Schools outside Europe, meanwhile, will soon feel the effects of competition from continental Europe.

“If schools understand what is going on, they will still be able to recruit in Europe,” says Prof Peters. “But others, including many US schools, will miss the boat because they do not accept three-year bachelors for grad school, even if that is a common system in Europe. Australia, on the other hand, is doing its best to align its own educational system with Bologna to be part of the action, rather than a spectator on the side.”

Europe’s co-ordinated effort at higher education reform is seen as both a model and a threat by Paul Gaston, trustees professor at Kent State University in the US and author of The Challenge of Bologna: What United States Higher Education Has to Learn from Europe, and Why It Matters That We Learn It (Stylus, £29.50/$47.25).

“Initially, the interests of the Bologna process were at odds with those of the business school community worldwide,” he says. “More recently, given the interest expressed by the European ministers in emphasising co-operation over competition, there may be greater opportunity for the sharing of best practices among business schools worldwide.

“For example, greater use of the case-study method, more characteristic of the US and UK, might strengthen European business education, while Europe’s emphasis on the development of clear learning outcomes within an explicit accountability loop might serve as a model for business education elsewhere.”

However, if US business schools ignore the Bologna Accord, Gaston warns they risk losing market share with respect to international students.

US graduates, he cautions, may find themselves less competitive on the world stage if European business students increasingly present their masters degrees to employers as the default entry-level credential.

“The most prestigious programmes are likely to maintain their pre-eminence for the present,” he says, “but the true winners are likely to be those schools of business that have taken seriously the implications of the Bologna process.”

According to Prof Gaston, Bologna is simply reinforcing the understanding that business education has become fully international.

“International business is no longer an option or emphasis within the discipline but has become the discipline,” he says. “The most competitive business students will learn languages. They will travel abroad. They will study issues that engage directly the complexities of the international business environment.”

The Bologna process

The University of Bologna – Europe’s oldest – is founded. Below: a detail from a relief on a tombstone from 1333 shows students at work.

Education ministers from the UK, France, Italy and Germany sign the Sorbonne Declaration in Paris, which aims to create a standardised European system of undergraduate and masters degrees, to promote student and academic mobility and to build a structure understood by educationalists, students and employers.

Twenty-nine countries sign the Bologna Declaration on the European Higher Education Area at the University of Bologna (pictured). Aims include setting up a system of credits, giving an international measure of students’ achievements. The deadline for implementation is set for 2010.

Ministers have agreed to meet every two years. In Prague they add lifelong learning and improved access to higher education for underrepresented groups to the aims of the process. A follow-up group is established to develop the process. Four more countries join, bringing the total to 33.

At the Berlin conference, priorities include adding PhD study to create a three-cycle system with the bachelors degree as the first cycle and the masters degree as the second. Russia is among seven more countries to join, bringing the total to 40.

In Bergen, Norway, participating countries agree to adopt standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine sign up, taking the total to 45.

At the London meeting, ministers launch a strategy to promote the European Higher Education Area beyond Europe. Montenegro joins the process, making a total of 46 countries.

In Belgium, the Leuven/Louvain la-Neuve Communiqué sets priorities for reform beyond 2010. Ministers agree that by 2020 at least 20 per cent of graduates should spend some time studying or training abroad.

The European Higher Education Area is launched by ministers in Budapest and Vienna. According to the European University Association’s Trends 2010 report, 95 per cent of institutions surveyed are using the three-cycle system. Kazakhstan joins, bringing the total to 47 countries.

The next ministerial meeting will take place in Bucharest in April.

Timeline by Wai Kwen Chan. (Sources: Eurydice; European University Association; EHEA; EFMD)

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