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As an aspiration it had all the hallmarks of a European project: a compelling vision that involved years of intricate negotiation and detailed policy work.

What started as a commitment by France, Italy, Germany and the UK to harmonise higher education qualifications grew over the following decade into a continent-spanning plan to create a single European Higher Education Area with interchangeable qualifications, improving student mobility. The Bologna Accord now takes in 47 countries in Europe and part of Asia.

“Now that you have Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey as members, you have a higher education area stretching from Dublin to Vladivostok, and Trondheim to Ankara. It’s something quite remarkable – moving not to a homogeneous [system], but to comparable degree structures,” says Liviu Matei, chief operating officer of the Central European University in Budapest (the private graduate university founded by the hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, who is a leading player in management education in central and eastern Europe).

“It is something quite unprecedented in history,” Matei adds.

Not surprisingly for such an ambitious enterprise – to create a common set of interchangeable qualifications for thousands of institutions with very different reputations, profiles and resources – the process has had its share of teething troubles.

“Frankly, we have had many problems with the Bologna process,” says Witold Bielecki, vice-rector of Kozminski University in Warsaw, a well-regarded private university focused on business and management. He speaks for many university administrators across the continent who have been confronted with the task of reshaping education systems with centuries of tradition behind them to fit the new model.

The Bologna process moves the continent’s university degrees towards a system that more closely resembles the UK or US model. In place of the four- or five-year masters degrees that most of the continent inherited from the 19th-century Prussian university model, Bologna prescribes a three-way split between a three-year bachelor degree, a two-year masters degree and a three-year doctoral qualification.

In principle, that should make it easier for students to move between institutions and countries – but at the cost of tearing up long-established curricula and practices. “We decided to teach basic statistics in the first three years, and introduce advanced statistics at the masters level,” says Prof Bielecki. “But we find new students arriving for the masters course who don’t have the background – we need to give them remedial teaching. It’s confusing both for teachers and students.”

Most EU members signed up to Bologna in 1999, and most of the remaining eastern European non-members had joined by 2003. But it took a while before implementation of the process began. In Hungary, it was not until 2006 that the Bologna Accord was adopted across the higher education system.

“Central and eastern European universities were very eager to embrace Bologna from 2001, because it was a means of helping their integration into the EU,” says Matei. But with acute funding difficulties in countries poorer than their west European counterparts, transition was costly.

For business schools in eastern Europe, Bologna brings the advantage of internationalisation and a far broader student base. And this applies not just to traditional courses, but also to MBAs, which, as professional qualifications, are outside the scope of the Bologna Accord.

“There are two kinds of business schools: schools on the international model, such as ours or Insead in Paris, and local schools,” says Matei. Local schools, which frequently offer business education as a first degree, stand to benefit from the mobility that the Bologna process makes possible: as the Kozminski University has found, students with bachelor degrees from less prestigious institutions are often keen to shop around for their masters degree.

“The international schools, which are outside the Bologna system, welcomed it because it helped the process of internationalisation,” he adds.

Business schools in the region talk of a westward flow of students. While most of these are dominated by students from their own country, Kozminski University reports large numbers of students from Ukraine and Belarus, and even a large contingent from China. Across town, management education classes at the Warsaw School of Economics are seeing growing interest from its eastern neighbours and from as far afield as Lithuania and Vietnam. Bologna helps in this process.

“You do see a westward flow,” says Yusaf Akbar, a management professor at CEU. “Maybe the top 1 per cent go to Insead or the London Business School or North America, but students from south-east Europe may go to Slovenia or Budapest, for example.”

Elzbieta Kawecka-Wyrzykowska, vice-rector for international co-operation at the Warsaw School of Economics, says: “For many years we’ve been recording a gradual increase in the number of foreign incoming students and of Polish outgoing students.” This is, at least in part, a result of Bologna, she says.

But, partly because of the magnitude of the changes being implemented across the vast area covered by the accord, full mobility is slow in coming. National education systems remain very different, and relatively few institutions have the prestige to attract students from far afield in large numbers. Most experts forecast that 80 per cent of students will do their bachelors and masters degrees at the same institution, with mobility likeliest in countries such as the UK and Ireland, where the bachelors/masters division has always existed.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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