Europe: Education reform as hot as Lady Gaga?

Jana Bacevic 03 October 2010

“The Bologna process is like Lady Gaga – people tend to love it or hate it, but they cannot ignore it,” said Peter Wells of Unesco-CEPES at the International Forum on Higher Education Reform “Foresight 2020”, which took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, from 26 to 29 September.

Different understandings and interpretations of the Bologna process and higher education reform were the focus of the event that gathered representatives from international organisations, European higher education authorities, universities, non-governmental organisations, research centres and independent experts.

Wells, of Unesco’s Romania-based European Centre for Higher Education (CEPES is its French acronym), was speaking at the fourth conference organised within the ‘Novi Sad initiative’, which aims to stimulate western Balkans regional educational reform by providing a meeting point for the discussion of higher education reform.

The participants faced the complicated task of considering the nature of developing European higher education, while discussing the future of reform.

A clear consensus within the conference was a shared understanding that the Bologna Process is not over; the preceding 10 years represent just the first phase.

In this context Pavel Zgaga, director of the Centre for Education Policy Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia, criticised what he termed the “end of history mentality” – the tendency of higher education discussions to focus on technical, rather than conceptual, issues.

Philippe Ruffio, of the European Commission’s Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency’s Tempus unit, suggested that discussions on higher education “move away from looking at the past, and start looking at the future”.

Commenting on the relationship between higher education reforms in the EU and in the western Balkans, David Crosier of the EU education information service Eurydice said that “challenges for higher education are universal in nature, but socio-economic and cultural conditions are particular.

“We hear of fragmented, non-integrated institutions, lack of the change of culture of self-management and lack of dialogue with stakeholders; but we don’t mention people very often – [potential] students, staff and citizens who do not participate in higher education. We also forget that students today were children of the conflicts that split Yugoslavia. The concept of public responsibility has particular resonance in this context,” said Crosier.

The participants agreed on the need to develop links between higher education institutions in the western Balkans, especially in terms of staff and student mobility. This need was reflected in the special panel on the mobility of doctoral students within the region, with the aim of developing ideas for a closer cooperation between the countries, universities, NGOs and foundations.

Besides providing the ground for intensive discussions, this conference and similar initiatives aim to help to improve higher education on ‘both sides’: the European Union, as well as the western Balkans, most of which remains outside the EU – at present only Slovenia is a member state, although Croatia is poised to accede.

The objective might not necessarily be to achieve, as one of the participants suggested, “no differences between higher education in the EU and the western Balkans in 2020”.

Rather, it might be to further develop the understanding of the complex processes of higher education reform in Europe as a whole, with all its regional and national differences and particularities that make up the European higher education area.

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