No ultimate goal in the European higher education reforms?


By Iryna Kushnir (Staff Writer)

Europe and its supra-national governing bodies play an important role in shaping our domestic institutions and policies – not least with regard to Higher Education. But what are the salient legislative instruments? And what can they tell us about what it means to be a nation within Europe, to be European or to be subject to outside rule? Are they static or dynamic – and how can we predict how they will impact on international structures in the future? In this piece one such policy, the European Higher Education Area, is discussed and explored – its boundaries traced and its implications considered. 

In 1998 Ministers responsible for education in Italy, France, Germany and the UK made the decision to consolidate their efforts by building the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Prior to this, and despite globalization tendencies, higher education structures of European countries had remained relatively closed and intractable to mutual integration – a state which can likely be attributed to a continuing belief that countries should retain a link between educational policies and national heritage/ identity[1]. However, in 1998 the aforementioned countries chose to create systems with comparable higher education structures which would, in turn, ease students’ and graduates’ academic and work mobility. This, they believed, would facilitate the spread of European values, and an overarching identity and citizenship.

Such aims might seem cohesive and tangible. However, Yagci refers to the EHEA as ‘a moving target’[2] because of its growing membership and an increase in the number of instruments it is associated with.

The EHEA grew much larger than was anticipated by its initiators. While the notion of ‘European’ is contested terrain, it would be safe to say that it was envisaged only countries existing within European geographical borders would be included in the EHEA. However, currently, the EHEA encompasses such non-European countries as Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, compromising the initial objective to facilitate a common European identity.

The expansion of the EHEA, based on a voluntary commitment by countries to abide by its objectives, might be explicable by reference to its undeniable connection to the European Union. The EU, it is claimed, has been tightly related to support of the EHEA, because of an unquestionable link between the two at the EHEAs outset[3]. In addition, it is stated in the Prague Communiqué (2001) that:

‘The choice of Prague to hold this meeting [to discuss the EHEA] is a symbol of their [ministers’] will to involve the whole of Europe in the process in the light of enlargement of the European Union’[4].

This statement might suggest that incorporation of new non-EU participants in the EHEA was related to the recruitment of new member states to the EU. The same Communiqué also proclaimed the necessity of having a follow-up group which would contain, apart from representatives from participant countries, the European Commission - a representative organ of the EU. This was also offered as an explanation regarding why the EHEA was connected to the EU Lisbon Agenda in 2001, which expressed a desire to make Europe the most competitive knowledge-based economy worldwide[5]. There is, however, an alternative and more recently occurring dimension to the debate: Terry states that the EHEA is not an EU program any more. Indeed, EU membership is not considered conditional on EHEA membership[6].

The EHEA has been called ‘expansionist’ by Dale and Robertson, not only because it continues to encompass more territories but also because it has been incorporating more and more projects, such as the Tuning Project or the Lifelong Learning Initiative[7]. Over and above this, the EHEA has been expanding the scope of instruments it is associated with. At its outset, the EHEA was about a system of credits, cycles of study processes, quality assurance, mobility, student-centered learning, and implemented a European dimension in higher education. The idea to develop a common Diploma Supplement appeared later in 1999[8]. And such instruments as the Lifelong Learning and the National Qualifications Frameworks have been supported since 2001[9]. Furthermore, since 1998 EHEA instruments have undergone gradual specification and improvement. For instance, the European Credit Transfer System was initially suggested as a variant of a credit system included in the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998, but was then – from 2003 onwards - promoted as the only credit system. Similarly, two cycles of studies, namely Bachelors and Masters, were the emphasis between 1998 and 2005, after which point Bergen Communique laid out development of PhDs, as the third cycle of studies, as another target to work towards[10].

The momentum all these developments gained apparently resulted in the realization of the EHEA’s aims – a meaningful European Higher Education Area. Indeed, the Budapest-Vienna Declaration[11], celebrates the EHEAs success. However, matters did not halt right there.  The Declaration set another deadline for further development and improvement of the EHEA, which should culminate in 2020. Work taking place in pursuit of this deadline appears to be resulting in the increasingly common belief that the EHEA is the biggest and most influential higher education initiative in Europe[12]. Furthermore, it would appear unlikely that 2020 will be the last deadline for work on the EHEA. New deadlines are likely to be set, new instruments or amendments are likely to be added, new countries might join the EHEA, and new ways of governing in the EHEA might be developed.

Whilst developments to the EHEA drive improvement, they also complicate the process of identifying what it’s all about: what it aims for, how this should be achieved and why it evolves. This multi-faceted nature of the EHEA, which is always in the process of development, suggests that the only thing remaining static is the idea of infinite change, development and improvement.

[1] Field, H. (2003). Integrating Tertiary Education in Europe. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 585, 182-195.

[2] Yagci, Y. (2010). A Different View of the Bologna Process: the Case of Turkey. European Journal of Education, 45.4, 588-600. (p.593) 

[3] Zgaga, P. (2009). The Bologna Process and Its Role for Transitional Countries. Revista de la Educacion Superior, 2.150, 83-96.

[4] Prague Communique (2001). Retrieved from (accessed December 1, 2014). (p. 2).

[5] Huisman, J. and Van Der Wende, M. (2004). The EU and Bologna: Are Supra- and International Initiatives Threatening Domestic Agendas? European Journal of Education, 39.3, 349-357.

[6] Terry, L. (2010). The Bologna Process and Its Impact in Europe: It’s So Much More than the Degree Changes. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 41.107, 107-228.

[7] Dale, R. and Robertson, S. (2009). Globalisation and Europeanisation in Education. Oxford: Symposium. 

[8] Bologna Declaration (1999). Retrieved from (accessed December 1, 2014).

[9] Prague Communique (2001).

[10] Bergen Communiqué (2005). Retrieved from (accessed December 1, 2014). 

[11] Budapest-Vienna Declaration (2010). Retrieved from (accessed December 1, 2014).

[12] Vogtle, E. and Martens, K. (2014). The Bologna Process as a template for transnational policy coordination. Policy Studies, 35.3, 246-263.