TCS Daily

No Phony Bologna

By Claude O. Pressnell - May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

On 19 June 1999 a conference of 29 European education ministers met in Bologna, Italy, and forged an agreement dubbed the Bologna Declaration. It set forth sweeping reforms in European higher education with the goal of improving quality and seeking uniform standards by 2010. What is now referred to as the Bologna Process has the following broad objectives:

* adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees;

* adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate, with the undergraduate degree requiring three years or less of study and the graduate (Masters/Doctorate) totaling an additional five years;

* promotion of mobility by overcoming obstacles to the effective exercise of free movement for students (by establishing a common system of credits) and faculty;

* promotion of European cooperation in quality assurance with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies;

* promotion of the necessary European dimensions in higher education, particularly with regards to curricular development, inter-institutional co-operation, mobility schemes and integrated programs of study, training and research.

Crucially, the Bologna Process provides the United States an opportunity to contribute to the discussion of defining the terms and expectations of higher education quality in Europe. European education leaders are largely attempting to adopt the open and transparent US model of institutional accreditation and quality. Many, however, fail to understand the importance of its complexity and the inclusive process of how to implement such a culture of quality improvement. Simply adopting a framework without experiential understanding does not ensure that it will accomplish its purpose. The self-study and quality process must be understood and embraced by the entire higher education community; not simply imposed by leadership.

By the US taking a leadership role in implementing higher education quality assurance in Europe, two paramount goals will be accomplished. First, it will minimize the barriers and dissimilarities between the American system of higher education and Europe. Many colleges and universities are currently struggling to maintain their faculty/student exchange agreements with Europe due to heightened security in light of the post-9/11 visa requirements and the lack of timely and seamless implementation of the SEVIS program.

Further exacerbating the difficulties is the Bologna Process objective that calls for a three-year baccalaureate program. The initial reaction has been negative concerning the possibility of the US colleges and universities willingness to accommodate such an abbreviated system. If, however, the US can serve as a leader in determining the quality of education in Europe it will create an atmosphere of confidence among US colleges and universities related to the quality of a student's degree and work toward minimizing the differences in the education systems.

We should not underestimate the willingness of the US system to be flexible in accepting a European undergraduate degree if they can be assured of the quality of the institution from which the student received the degree. If this confidence can be achieved, there would be even a greater number of European universities to establish student and faculty exchange agreements.

Second, and more important, the implementation of institution accreditation as modeled by the US is an important strategy for the spread of democracy, especially in Eastern Europe. The very model of an open and transparent accreditation process places value on the abilities and opinions of all members of the higher education community. The process enables students, staff, faculty, administration, outside key stakeholders, and the governing boards to have input in setting the mission and goals for the university. It is a tool of empowerment and accountability with a focus on continuous improvement. The process creates a culture which values and invites the input of everyone affected by the educative process.

Higher education self-studies demand that an institution ask the fundamental question, "Why do we exist?" The answer must be as a result of inclusive and broad based involvement. This approach, if successful, removes the definition of education from an elite few and places it into the hands of many. John Dewey writes in Democracy and Education, "Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class."

Demonstrating success in higher education through inclusive ongoing quality improvement has the potential to transform societies. Once people experience improvement and a sense of purpose in the workplace (in this case, the university) they will begin to demand it of their governments and culture at large. The US model of accreditation can serve as a compliment to the US strategy toward the achieving this goal.

The US cannot afford to disengage from the higher education reforms in Europe. Disengagement may further intensify the present difficulties with transatlantic higher education cooperation. Whereas engagement may expand opportunities of student and faculty exchange agreements and serve as a key strategy for the advancement of democracy in Eastern Europe.

The author is President of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association.


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