Vandenbroucke zet agenda ‘Leuven 2009’

Nieuws | de redactie
11 september 2008 | 'Leuven 2009' voorzitter, vice-premier Frank Vandenbroucke, heeft vanmorgen zijn strategie voor 'Bologna 2020' op tafel gelegd. "Not focusing on making diversity transparent, entails a serious risk: the risk of European higher education being an arena of confusion in which the market is organised as a bazaar of undemonstrated reputations." Analyse, hoofdlijnen en conclusies leest u hier.

In designing the future of the Bologna Process, we first should look at the outcomes and results produced thus far. An independent assessment has been asked for by the European ministers to clarify what has been really achieved and to what extent this has been done. Without anticipating on the assessment’s conclusions, one can nevertheless already acknowledge the impressive achievements of the first ten years of the process. The vision that guided the gathering in Bologna in 1999, was to have an integrated higher education area in Europe by 2010, with transparent and readable higher education systems, trustworthy institutions and programmes, and mobile students and professors. That vision was optimistic in the true sense of the word, but also proved to be very mobilising.

The Bologna Process was also unique in constructing a new method of policy-development. It has set new standards for policy development by its top-down and bottom-up interaction, its active involvement of stakeholders and its ability to generate and mobilise an enormous energy of reform, even if not everyone was always fully aware of certain backgrounds or higher aims. One can truly say that Bologna has led to the mobilisation of all relevant social forces in higher education.

When looking into the critical conditions for success of the Bologna Process, besides the ambitious vision and the inclusive nature of the reform process, one should also mention the clarity and relative simplicity of its objectives. The ministers formulated a small number of easily understandable objectives. The Bologna Declaration has set the agenda of reform of European higher education at the right time. Transparency, convergence and mobility were the strategic objectives European higher education needed in order to unlock its potential, to demonstrate its qualities and thus, and that is of utmost importance, to provide an alternative for an unrestrained global competition.

Indeed, we should probably put more efforts in underlining that Bologna is not a big sell-out operation of European higher education, as critics often put up. To the contrary, even: thanks to Bologna, we arm ourselves, all over the continent, with a framework and instruments which allow us to keep the higher education sector within the public domain.

It is true that governments and public authorities all over Europe tend to restrain themselves from deciding on how each and every euro in the university budget should be spent, and where professor so-and-so should be appointed. But that does not mean that they have disappeared from the higher education scene: instead, the focus has shifted towards investing in solid and objective quality assurance systems, developing common qualification levels and descriptors, looking after the social dimension in higher education, and so on. Honestly speaking: as a minister responsible for providing all citizens with equal opportunities on an excellent education, I care much more about these handles and regulatory frameworks, which secure the position of higher education within the domain of public interest, than about the traditional ministerial prerogatives vis-à-vis public institutions, as these prerogatives in themselves do not protect at all against the strikes of the invisible hand of the free market.

To name but one example: Bologna has made us install quality assurance systems – which are, by the way, already demonstrating their positive influence on the (proven!) quality of teaching and research. Don’t these quality assurance instruments leave us with much more confidence in our higher education than typical market indicators would ever do, such as market shares or slightly-earned-slightly-bought reputations?

Bologna tomorrow

That is for the past. Together with my colleagues from the other Benelux countries, I had the ambition then to start a new process of collective reflection and debate on what should be the objectives for the next ten years of the Bologna Process. Several seminars and meetings have already taken place, all over Europe. There is still a long way to go to the Leuven 2009 Ministerial meeting. Yet, a number of provisional statements already can be made on how the strategic objectives for Bologna 2020 should look like.

Before presenting you some ideas on the strategic objectives to be set for 2020, I have to make clear that I really believe that we do need a sequel to the Bologna Process. The work is not finished yet. The structural reforms in degree systems, the accompanying regulatory frameworks in quality assurance and credit-transfer, the cooperation and mobility realised thus far, they all were established in most countries, but in various modes and at a varying speed. Apart from that, they also seem to be only partial answers to the challenges and needs of today’s world. Recognition of qualifications, to name but one example, often still is a problem, in spite of frameworks and instruments, such as quality assurance and accreditation, which have been created or further developed with lots of enthousiasm for the objectives of the Bologna Process. A draft paper presented to the Bologna Follow-Up Group enumerates all initial action lines still to be realised. And that is quite a lot. Indeed, while much of the structural reform is already in place, the key challenge now appears to be moving from structure to practice. That is an indispensable move, for popular support for the Bologna reforms – and popular interest in maintaining higher education within the public domain – is to a large extent precisely based on very tangible results and achievements (“why still a procedure for the recognition of my study period abroad?”), rather than on abstractly looking structures.

The general sense of the Bologna Process – transparency, convergence, mobility – is, in other words, still the right one, but it has to be refuelled with new goals and objectives. For we have to be honest about that: the integration of the European higher education area is still rather weak and its global potential not yet realised. A considerable number of countries have joined the process later on, and some of them even quite recently, which challenges these countries, however ambitious they might be, to catch up with the forerunners within a realistic timeframe. (But even the forerunners themselves still experience many difficulties in rightly applying the various instruments Bologna has brought about!)

Strategic objectives for Bologna 2020

What then should be the core concepts of the strategic objectives for Bologna 2020, apart from completing the initial agenda, of course? Transparency certainly should remain a primary core concept. A lot can be said on increasing complexity and diversity, and most of it is true. We have learnt that heterogeneity and diversity are not the enemies of convergence and integration. As a spontaneous corollary to the convergence realised in the course of the Bologna process, institutions have differentiated themselves. They show ever more variation in mission and ambitions now.

The institutions are right and they should not hesitate continuing along this path. However attractive it may sound, not at least to ambitious policy makers both in- and outside the institutions, the future does not lie in everyone pretending to do the same thing, nor in attempting to assume the many roles society expects higher education to play nowadays. As for me, mission differentiation is a much more promising avenue of future-focused development, contributing to the overall performance of our higher education system as a whole.

But in order to really articulate and value diversity, we should reveal its real nature. Diversity cannot be appreciated if it is kept under the veil of ignorance and ambiguity. The next phase of the process towards transparency therefore should invest much more energy in developing instruments to really address diversity and make it readable and understandable for everyone. Well-designed, multidimensional rankings can be a suitable instrument for that – assuming, and I hope that it can be proven in fact that this is not a killer assumption, that such a type of rankings cannot only be thought of theoretically, but also developed in practice. A realistic assessment of actual learning outcomes will be yet another instrument to make diversity readable and understandable. Regulatory frameworks validating institutional diversity should be developed. For not focusing on making diversity transparent, entails a serious risk: the risk of European higher education being an arena of confusion in which the market is organised as a bazaar of undemonstrated reputations. It is not possible to build an attractive European higher education system with a strong collective reputation, if this system is internally not transparent. Thus, transparency of diversity could, however paradoxically it may sound, lead to a new, higher sense of identity and coherence within the European higher education area.

Next to transparency, there is a set of values and ambitions that I would like to summarise in the concept of social responsibility and responsiveness. I am strongly convinced that there is no need for differentiation that goes so far as developing a binary divide between a mass higher education system of average quality and an excellent system for the elite. Equality of opportunity for education of excellent quality should be acknowledged as a core value of the European higher education system and a condition for its further success. Despite a successful democratisation of higher education in the past, Europe will have to increase its efforts to mobilise its full potential. This implies providing opportunities to all talents, especially in those communities where under-participation risks to result in a real waste of talent. The demographic challenges will force us to mobilise ánd regularly upgrade all available ‘brain-power’. (Seen from a different angle, one could say that there is no acute need neither to dramatize demographic changes nor to hastily import talent from overseas, given the actual rate of talent still waiting to be discovered and developed on the hand, and the often heavily underexploited potential for life-long learning on the other hand. In many aspects, the higher education sector indeed still has to maximise the impact of learning and research.)

Social responsiveness also requires a new relationship between governments and the public body in general on the one hand, and institutions on the other hand. Institutions rightly ask for more autonomy. I do agree that they need more autonomy in order to liberate their potential. But as Isaiah Berlin taught us about the concept of “liberty”, we should distinguish two concepts of “autonomy”, a negative concept and a positive concept. To be relevant for education policy, “autonomy” should not only be understood in its negative definition, as less government interference. Enhancing autonomy also means: enhancing the capacity to make choices and define strategies, enhancing the capacity to act effectively, and to have impact – in the case of higher education institutions, impact on our society at large. So conceived, autonomy and regulation are not mutually exclusive concepts. I believe in the positive definition of autonomy, in which regulation is seen as a kind of dialogue between responsible actors for the common good. We should look for a new ‘pact’ between higher education institutions, the political authorities and society at large as an alternative both for traditional political regulation and complete political abdication. The challenges ahead for higher education are so crucial for Europe’s development in general, that conceptualising the state-institution relationships in terms of (negative) autonomy and accountability only, may fall short of what actually needs to be done.

Clarity on what governments and social stakeholders expect from higher education institutions should be one of the first goals of such a dialogue. In the context of the knowledge society the public benefits of higher education are ever more increasing, manifold and far-reaching: a better educated and more creative ‘human capital’, up-to-date learning outcomes focusing on generic skills preparing for employability in a changing labour market, new qualifications, new flexible learning arrangements, academic excellence focusing on critical inquiry as well as on knowledge transfer, social and cultural criticism as an invaluable contribution to democracy and critical citizenship, etc.

The paradox of policy-making in higher education is that higher education is becoming so crucial to economic, social, cultural and even political development, that governments have no alternative to actively engaging in a critical dialogue with institutions and stakeholders, whereas at the very same moment, the institutions themselves claim more autonomy in order to improve their effectiveness. As for the governments, there should be no hesitation in recognising that the importance of higher education also implies a higher level of funding. I at least have no problem in recognising the validity of the 2%-norm put forward by the European Commission, and member countries which do not reach this norm, i.e. the large majority, should not hesitate drawing an ambitious growth path towards these 2%.

The third concept that should guide us in formulating the strategic objectives for Bologna 2020, is global attractiveness. The question should not be how Europe guards itself against the tides of globalisation or arms itself in the ‘academic arms race’, not even how Europe should organise itself to successfully wage the global war on talent. The question is what Europe can contribute to the global public good: how to unlock not only Europe’s but the world’s academic potential, how to make ideas circulate around the globe, how to forge partnerships across the continents, how to maintain a global balance between educational needs and educational capacity, et cetera. That is where the real attractiveness of European higher education really lies. In redefining our ambitions, we should make clear what Europe’s contribution should be to answering the global challenges. We should definitely demonstrate the openness of European higher education systems and institutions to the world, rather than establishing a ‘fortress’ against it, despite some feelings of fear and envy against Europe, and despite an overall climate of commercialisation or “commodification of knowledge”.


I deliberately did not propose clear strategic objectives for the next decade of the Bologna Process. That would be far too early and I am not in the capacity of doing so. A whole process of debate and interaction, leading to a more formal process of development and negotiation, will have to take place in order to put the ministers in the capacity of decision-making.

What I, together with my colleagues from the Benelux countries, want to do, is to feed this process by organising a whole series of events in the Bologna Process. I took the opportunity to focus on three guiding concepts which could enlighten our road-map towards Leuven 2009. These three concepts emerged out of preliminary work of the higher education research community. Many more could be added, but let’s keep in mind that in moving the Bologna Process further, we should focus our energy upon a relatively small number of strategic objectives. Only by focusing, the Bologna Process will keep on mobilising energy and interest, not only in Europe itself but also on a global scale.

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