In this respect, the minister stressed the importance of international comparability of institutions and their transparency. Well-informed students, higher education institutions and stakeholders are a pre-condition for both mobility and concentration of talent. Plasterk’s strategy consists of a continuing effort on improving transparency, quality assurance and accreditation, and the solving of practical and legal mobility burdens, such as pension rights. Although he underlined the principle of subsidiarity when it comes to a European education policy, the Dutch minister does indeed see an important role for the Bologna Process to guarantee the necessary preconditions for a sound system of education in Europe. (Also see: ScienceGuide article ‘Plasterk wil Europees HO beleid’)
I believe in strengthening the fundaments of a truly European Higher Education Area To achieve this goal being able to trust and compare each other’s education systems is paramount. Furthermore the programmes and missions of local institutions should adopt this overarching European ideal. So far I agree with minister Plasterk.
In contrast to the minister, I do not think trusting and comparing each other is enough. In Plasterk’s vision it is sufficient to set the right conditions, and by voting with their feet, students, institutions and stakeholders will form and direct higher education by self-regulation. This ‘invisible hand’ approach leaves two questions unanswered for. Firstly, how do we make Bologna work in practice and secondly, how do we link Bologna to a broader set of societal issues?
Making Bologna work in practice: ensuring trust and enthusiasm
Flemish minister Vandenbroucke seems to concur with me. Like his Dutch colleague Plasterk he also underlines that the initial outset of Bologna is still very relevant today. We have to keep working on finishing the job: implementing structural reforms in degree systems, regulatory frameworks in quality assurance and credit transfer. Additionally Vandenbroucke however makes an important remark: the time has now come to move from structure to practice. I emphasize that if Bologna is to become a success in daily practice, one has to look beyond structural reforms in degree systems. Truly implementing the Bologna agenda and philosophy means addressing issues that include how do we ensure that a Bachelor’s degree is a real start qualification for the labour market for both professionally orientated and scientifically orientated programmes; how do we ensure free enrolment of students from one cycle into another both within and between these orientations; and lastly how do we make sure these cycles and orientations comply with societal needs. Only when we achieve to solve these problems, and move from the ideal of Bologna to making Bologna work in practice, we will ensure real trust and enthusiasm for the European Higher Education Area.
Responsiveness: the societal dimension
The second element that seems to be missed in Plasterk’s approach is the responsiveness of higher education to societal issues. Aggregation of talents and centres of excellence is indeed an important goal for Europe. But again, I would like to argue, this is only one side of the coin. Above all higher education should answer to the societal need for widening participation and lifelong learning. Therefore, we have to find ways to combine widening access and excellence in higher education. Of course, this is not a simple task, but it is an item that should be placed high on the agenda. This means we have to address the dilemma how we can support the higher education institutes in Europe in such a way that they can accommodate their education in relation to a more diverse student population (in respect to age, culture and experience in education and working life), while at the same time strengthening the level and quality of higher education and increasing output.
Besides widening access, responsiveness also means ensuring that higher education meets the demands of the present knowledge-based society and economy with respect to employability. This begs the question how higher education institutes can provide a translation of new knowledge for fast-changing professional practice, and as a consequence how they will keep the team and competences of lecturers and professors up-to-date.
By moving from ideal to practice, and by setting an inclusive agenda focussing on widening access, excellence and the responsiveness to the demands of the knowledge society, we can take Bologna to the next level, both for students, stakeholders and the institutes themselves. This social responsiveness is precisely what makes Europe stand out in the world. I believe that this will prove to be a lasting and attractive model for students, researchers and stakeholders from all across the globe and will ultimately be a driving force on the global level.