BRUSSELS – Given the rapid changes in higher education and numerous reforms ongoing currently, especially in funding systems, the eight Bologna Process Ministerial Conference aims to be yet another milestone in establishing the European Higher Education Area. The conference is to take place on 26 and 27 April in Bucharest, Romania.
But perhaps one should be cautious about the future since the implementation of agreed reforms since 2009 has been non-noticeable in most countries, yet no country has done it all. This is the message outlined both in the upcoming official implementation report and the 2012 edition of the Bologna With Student Eyes, written and published by ESU.
Rather, the current reform efforts by a number of governments revolve around policy areas that are not directly a part of the Bologna Process. Even though fundamental parts like funding of higher education touch upon any other aspect. No wonder that then students would either see or are told that also these reforms “come from Europe”, essentially damaging the reputation of the Bologna Process.
The Ministerial Conference will define the priorities for the next three years of the process. Currently the draft Communiqué highlights that most energy should go towards equity in higher education, whereby the aim is to work towards widening participation and bringing underrepresented groups into higher education.
In addition to this, the emphasis will be on providing access to good quality for everyone that does enter higher education. This is a novel aspiration, very much welcomed by ESU since currently we do observe that many people that come from disadvantaged groups don not have access to the same institutions or that sometimes the phenomena of ghettoisation becomes prevalent.
Secondly, given the current ongoing economic crunch and the precarious labour market, the ministers will agree on highlighting the need for higher education to better define how it approaches the issue of employability. This is especially crucial.
Thirdly, the ministers will adopt the strategy “Mobility for better learning” for the European Higher Education Area, which highlights key actions to be taken in order to ensure growth and good quality in the mobility experience for students. But the story is the same old here that there is a need to work on better funding, bringing down bureaucratic barriers like difficulties with recognition and politically motivated problems with immigration legislation and visas. But crucially, as studies have proven that students that do go to learn for a period abroad have a higher socio-economic background, emphasis will be on widening access.
Finally, as this conference is taking place at a time that most governments are on an austerity mode, the ministers for higher education will bring the dialogue about funding mechanisms and governance of higher education institutions to the table for the next three years. This is indeed very logical from the point of view that many Bologna reforms should be discussed together with such core issues.
The most crucial issue that ESU will be working on however will be to keep the public responsibility for higher education, especially in financing. After more than ten years of Bologna Process calling for public investments, ministers seem to lack courage at this crucial moment, when fiscal austerity is prevailing, to agree that actually investing into higher education would be a good way out of the crisis.