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“20 years of Higher Education System Reform under the Bologna flag.”

A note by Bruno Broucker and Kurt De Wit



The Bologna Process installed in 1999 a momentum to bring together the higher education (HE) systems within a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and to promote with this mobility, collaboration and the European identity. At that time, the will was expressed by 29 countries to enhance the competitiveness of the EHEA.

There is no need to say that this ideal is after 20 years under pressure.

On the one hand we witness throughout Europe political trends such as the increase of right wing parties and Euroscepticism, the Brexit process that has introduced the mere possibility to leave the European Union, and major challenges regarding migration. On the other hand we witness a renewed European call to introduce what has been called the European Universities.

In the light of those evolutions, it is necessary to look backwards and to investigate what has over the last 20 years been achieved, which way higher education systems throughout Europe have developed and have been reformed. This allows to see to which extent the EHEA is ready for a new chapter, and what that chapter might be. At the same time it might help to reframe the initial goals within the political, economic and social context we currently live in.

In the recently published book 'Higher Education System Reform: an international comparison after twenty years of Bologna'[1] 12 HE systems are critically described and analysed from the perspective of four major questions: (1) What is the current situation with regard to the six original goals of Bologna?; (2) What was the adopted path of reform?; (3) Which were the triggering factors for reform?; (4) What was the rationale/discourse used during the reform?

In brief, the international analysis demonstrates the following. First, that the technical Bologna goals have more easily been implemented than the more broadly defined goals. The divergence of policy implementation practices throughout Europe demonstrates that the values behind the initial Bologna goals are challenged. Second, reform across Europe has yielded different effects in the different HE systems: while some countries experienced a revolutionary reform process, others witnessed a renewal or confirmation of the reform that was already taken place. In this process, the national logic and reasons for reform seemed to be more decisive than the adherence to a European ideal. Third, the context of each HE system is key. It is the combination of social, political and economic contextual factors, the decision making culture of the country and the path dependency of the system that are determinant for the reform rationale employed, the stakeholders involved and the undertaken trajectory.

During the 2019 EAIR conference at Leiden University the conclusions of the international study will be presented and discussed with an international audience of policy makers, scholars and practitioners. Herewith we hope to stimulate the debate about the role of HE for society. Because there is no doubt that this role will be significant given the (geo)political, social, economic and ecological challenges that lay ahead.

[1] Broucker, B., De Wit, K., Verhoeven, J. & Leisyte, L. (2019). Higher Education System Reform. An international comparison after twenty years of Bologna. Leiden: Brill/Sense Publishers.

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