Brexit: A ‘stress test’ for the regionalisation fostered by the Bologna Process?

Brexit: A ‘stress test’ for the regionalisation fostered by the Bologna Process?

Brexit is shifting the discussion about higher education in the European Union, raising questions about EU-wide exchange and collaboration projects and, more broadly, about the future of the supranational European Higher Education Area (EHEA), which has been promoted for the last 17 years through the Bologna Process.

The Bologna Process, though initiated by EU countries and often perceived and portrayed as an EU initiative, operates outside of the EU framework. Broader than the EU geographically (50 members at present) and legally, Bologna is nevertheless closely linked to the EU and depends on it in some ways.
In light of Brexit, the discussion about the nature and prospects of the Bologna Process is back on the agenda: Is Bologna an EU project fundamentally, or simply European? Can it survive without the EU, once a founding, key Bologna member like the UK is out of the select EU club? Beyond just the UK, Brexit raises questions about the entire Bologna Process and might open up a new debate on higher education policymaking in Europe.

Higher Education in the European Union

In the European Union, education policy has been the responsibility of member states. It is a policy field based on the principle of subsidiarity, with no direct interference in the more distinctive features of national systems (such as the structure and content of curricula and the institutional organisation of educational systems).
As such, Europeanisation in education was perceived as something to be avoided, with national legacies and traditions considered values to be preserved. In the late 1990s emerged the Bologna Process – a voluntary, collective and intergovernmental effort to strengthen the competitiveness and attractiveness of European higher education by helping diverse higher education systems converge towards more transparent systems and to create a harmonised European higher education area.
The Bologna Process is a clear and quite remarkable example of regional cooperation/regionalisation in higher education. Through it, participating countries can strengthen their higher education systems and address common problems which otherwise could not be dealt with at the national level. Major institutional reforms in universities have been triggered by the Bologna Process.

The Bologna Process and EU initiatives in higher education

There is a strong connection between EU higher education initiatives and Bologna-proposed policies (or action lines). More concretely, the latter can be considered embodiments of the former.
Through the 1998 Sorbonne Declaration, member states committed themselves to encouraging a common frame of reference aimed at improving external recognition and facilitating student mobility and employability. As part of this agreement, they committed to implementing the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and the Lisbon Recognition Convention, which aims to facilitate the assessment and recognition of higher education studies and qualifications.
A year later, through the Bologna Declaration (1999), strong emphasis was put on more European co-operation in quality assurance and on the promotion of the European dimensions in higher education. Then, through the Prague Communiqué in 2001, member states were encouraged to create lifelong learning policies, to facilitate the partnership of higher education institutions and students in promoting the attractiveness of the EHEA, and to pursue policies aimed at the social dimension of higher education (including the access of under-represented groups).
The introduction of research as an integral component, doctoral studies as a third cycle, policies focusing on student-centred learning and the teaching mission of universities followed later.

Increasing role of the European Commission

The Bologna Process offers a concrete illustration of the rising influence of European institutions in higher education. As a first step, the European Commission, through funding and expertise, acquired a formal role (membership in 2001) in the Bologna Process. This was then used to link Bologna’s objectives to the knowledge society component promoted by the Lisbon Strategy and therefore with the economic gains expected from a common education area.
By claiming that universities were an indispensable component in the knowledge society, and by invoking Bologna and the Lisbon, the European Commission was then able to confirm the legitimacy of EU actions in higher education, providing external reference that justified its increased activity in the tertiary education sector.
This is reflected through the way in which national governments have embraced the European Commission’s deft combination of research and priorities, utilising this common language for higher education to describe and contextualise their national reforms.
Despite the fact that the Bologna Process goes beyond EU member states, the idea of associating the Bologna Process with the European Union is now firmly in place. By becoming a partner in Bologna, the European Commission found a back door for entering the higher education policy arena. Due to its expertise, funding and capacities (eg producing policy papers and reporting on the progress of the Bologna), the European Commission is now recognised as indispensable.

The Bologna Process in the UK

The Bologna Process grew out of a meeting of the education ministers from Germany, Italy, France and the UK, countries which have been key players in the Bologna Process ever since.
It is often claimed that the British were not exposed to the same amount of change other signatory countries were subject to in response to the Bologna Process because many of the objectives fit neatly with existent British higher education policy: the degree structure was already in place and the quality assurance and graduate employability procedures were part of their fundamental practice.
Given this detail, and considering Brexit, the case of the UK is extremely interesting to explore. On the one hand, it is one of the countries that suffered little change by joining the Bologna Process. But on the other hand, considering the close ties between EU interventions in the field of higher education and the Bologna Process, the UK can be a typical case to test the strength of the Bologna Process.

Applying a stress test

It can be said that Brexit is a ‘stress test’ for the entire Bologna Process and the EHEA. Without being a hypothetical scenario, Brexit allows us to determine Bologna’s strengths and reactions to extreme political situations, but also to gauge how the lack of EU involvement will affect the UK’s higher education sector.
Brexit’s effect on Bologna directly is likely to be limited, since Bologna is a voluntary, non-state process that includes non-EU members. As to the links between the EU and the UK’s higher education sector, it is clear that funding (for research mainly) and student mobility will be directly affected. Regarding the links between the EU and Bologna, Brexit might have the effect of loosening the ties, since it reinforces the overall trend toward national priorities over European ones that has become prevalent within the EU as a whole. Last but not least, it remains unknown how the links between the Bologna Process and the EU’s initiatives in higher education will be reflected in higher education in the UK.
In such circumstances, it is worth asking: Where are the boundaries between these two approaches in higher education? Will the Bologna Process still hold without the substantial support of the EU? Is the Bologna Process enough to sustain the UK’s status within the European higher education space? Without making any predictions, the effects of Brexit on higher education in the UK can be assessed only when the effects of the Bologna Process are clearly identified.
Simona Torotcoi is currently a PhD student at the Central European University.
This is the second blog post of the 2017 spring Forum series. EAIE members will receive their copies of Forum on their doorsteps soon, but can already download the full version online. Non-members can view the Editor’s pick in the Resources corner. Gain full access to Forum by becoming an EAIE member.