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Has more than a decade of reform been worth it? We ask a rector and a dean from two prominent schools if they think the Bologna process has been a success.

Professor Guido Tabellini, rector, Bocconi University, Milan

The Bologna process had several main objectives, some of which have been achieved more successfully than others. The first aim was to standardise cycles of study throughout Europe to promote student and faculty mobility. This was intended to create a sense of European citizenship among young people, and an important by-product of increased mobility would be to stimulate competition between schools and raise the bar of academic excellence. It would also make it easier for graduates to find work abroad, improving labour mobility.

Second, Bologna was meant to give higher education a more systematic framework, increasing its ability to attract students from outside the EU. Global competition for talent is intense, so it is vital that Europe has a modern, innovative system of higher education.

Third, the process was intended to shorten the curricula through the implementation of three cycles – a three-year bachelor degree, a two-year masters and a three-year doctorate – so that more students would be ready for work at the end of the first cycle. This also recognises that learning is a lifelong process, and that there is value in alternating work and post-experience education (an MBA, for example).

Fourth, the Bologna process was meant to create more specialised second-cycle curricula.

It is too early to assess fully whether these goals have been achieved, but some successes and setbacks can be identified. A main source of disappointment is that the two key objectives have not been fully realised. In particular, standardisation has only partly succeeded, due to incomplete implementation at EU level. Not all countries have complied with the 3+2 framework. That the UK has opted out is particularly detrimental, given the influence of the Anglo-Saxon world in higher education and the fact some of the best universities are in Britain.

This incomplete standardisation restricts student mobility. Competition is also distorted by variations in tuition fees, with some countries providing almost free tuition for all, while in others students pay large sums.

The target of ensuring employability of graduates after the first cycle has also been largely missed. In Italy (which has adopted 3+2), for instance, most students continue with the second cycle, and this seems to be a European trend. A possible reason is that students fear being seen to have chosen an easier academic path. Also, many first-cycle degrees were designed to prepare students for the second track, the MSc degree, rather than immediate work.

It is not all bad news, however. There have been positive outcomes. For example, student mobility has increased between countries where the 3+2 system has been introduced. At Bocconi University, foreign students account for about 10 per cent of the second-cycle population. More than 40 per cent are from the EU, many from large countries with the 3+2 system, such as France and Germany. The reform has also led universities to offer programmes taught in English that attract students from around the world. At Bocconi, the largest foreign group in our MSc programmes is from China, with India, Turkey and Russia in the top 10.

Second-cycle programmes in top European schools offer a variety of advanced content. The choices offered by specialised advanced degrees have enhanced the skills of European graduates. This has attracted motivated candidates and led to successful placements in key fields such as finance, economics, consulting, marketing and accounting.

The implementation of harmonised second-cycle programmes with a global perspective (usually taught in English) has also aided the creation of joint international curricula. Top universities now offer joint degrees with others in Europe or further afield. Such partnerships are easier to design for a two-year MSc (a year is too short for students to move between universities). An example is the Cems-Mim (the alliance of leading business schools and multinational companies). This business degree has been implemented, and double-degree agreements have been signed with 16 partner schools in the EU and emerging countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China.

To conclude, the main aims of reform (standardisation and the shortening of studies) have yet to be achieved. But the goal of reducing the age at which students start work can also be reached by shortening secondary school education. (Some countries, such as Italy, still have a 13-grade school education.)

More generally, student mobility will increase further. The world is getting smaller and students want the experience of living and studying abroad. Education will become more international, offering exposure to academic and cultural differences, and companies will want graduates with a global mind-set. Universities will have to strive to meet such demands – and achieving further standardisation and harmonisation of our curricula is a challenge that cannot be delayed for long.

Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean, HEC Paris

France is not Europe, and Europe is not France. Similarly, higher education cannot be merely equated with business schools. Nevertheless, I will support the assumption that the Bologna Accord has profoundly transformed, in a positive way, the landscape of European higher education.

Most experts consider that, for a long while, the history of higher education saw little advancement and was barely affected by the turmoil of our times. Despite the uprising at the end of the 1960s, our higher education system returned to its rhythmic pattern. It appeared almost indifferent to the questioning that arose, and there has certainly been no significant reform or fundamental doubt about its place in society.

The launch in 1998 of what would become the Bologna process, and the simultaneous appearance of league tables, both national and international, put an end to this period of tranquillity. A number of reforms followed, while accountability measures were refined. Across Europe, the agreements triggered strategic moves that led to a reshaping of the global landscape of higher education. Each of these initiatives was attributed to the agreements. That marked the end of a time when higher education was just assumed to be excellent, without further verification. If only for this reason, we should be thankful to the architects of Bologna.

The Bologna Accord is often downgraded to a mere increase in student mobility. This objective, which to me is by no means the most central, has certainly been achieved. There is not a single student from a European business school who has not spent at least one academic semester abroad. Of course many business schools had already initiated such exchange programmes several years before, but Bologna has undeniably accelerated this trend, to such an extent that student mobility has today become truly global.

The second objective was to increase significantly the attractiveness of studying in Europe, which was an accomplishment in itself. This objective officially began with the mutual recognition of degrees between European countries. This has been achieved and surpassed, as degrees are now recognised worldwide. As far as business schools are concerned, the concept of “pre-experience” masters is now well established and has gained visibility across the globe. At HEC Paris, for instance, we have seen foreign applications grow threefold in the past five years.

The Bologna process, along with the rankings, has helped a new standard emerge. Let me stress this point. For decades, only the MBA degree had achieved recognition around the world. Pre-experience European degrees seemed to be confined to bachelors level. In only a few years we have seen not only the acknowledgement of a masters level for many of these degrees, but also the emergence of new players in the field, from both Europe and Asia. I am convinced we will see a number of US business schools “trying out” this segment in the coming years.

Little more than 10 years after the signing of the Sorbonne Declaration in Paris, which prefigured the Bologna agreements a year later, we can only bow to the increase of student mobility and, above all, the recognition of a new norm that unfortunately many had not hoped for. Of course some people may have seen there the “invisible hand” of the market. But this is anecdotal.

While today we acknowledge the failure of the Lisbon accord, we should rejoice in these promising first steps of the Bologna process. Clearly much remains to be done. No one doubts that. But where then does the future lie?

This process was meant to be finalised by 2010 with the constitution of the European higher education area. Meeting at the Leuven-Louvain-la-Neuve summit in April 2009, the 46 higher education ministers (a 47th, Kazakhstan, has since signed up) had to admit that the conditions for a functional implementation of this European higher education area were not yet in place: quality and compliance procedures were still far from being standardised and generalised, curriculum backbones were not yet harmonised and the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System was not enforced everywhere.

Further convergence between the ministers is therefore required, which explains why the Bologna process has been prolonged until 2020. However, when considering the remarkable results noted above, I am convinced we can only look to the next 10 years with optimism.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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