over a week ago, the Bucharest communiqué was adopted, the seventh communique in the Bologna process that started in 1999. Now encompassing 47 countries it often tends to be glorified by the actors involved as a great success and hallmark of changes achieved, whereas the research evidence tends to be more modest in terms of the actual impacts and convergence.
The presentation of the latest stocktaking report at the ministerial conference indicated a number of fuzzy areas (e.g. lifelong learning) and a number of areas where progress had not been very huge. However, there are areas that seem to be highlighted as success stories by all involved in the process. Indeed, for a number of reasons (and these varying from country to country) Bologna has arguably been an initiator for a number of reform processes in Europe and beyond, and there has been some structural convergence in terms of the introduction of the three cycles.
While the initial deadline for building the European Higher Education Area was in 2010, this did not mark an end point in the process. As the Romanian minister of education formulated it: there really are no alternatives so one needs to reinvent the Bologna Process. So – what would that entail and did the ministerial conference indicate that this reinvention ris either taking place or likely to take place?
Well, its large
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer scope of the event. Not only has the Bologna process now include 47 countries in Europe and Central Asia, the Bologna Policy Forum additionally attracts participants from all over the world, and the latest conference attracted in total representatives from approximately 100 national representations and 30 stakeholder organisations as indicated by the organisers.
Space for discussion or an empty space?
Despite Bologna in practice being a statement of intent and not having any legal status and implementation requirement, it provides a space for discussion and shared experiences. This creation of a “space for discussion” was also evident in many of the statements made by various representatives during the sessions and panel debates. However, one could also question what this space really means? At the end of the day it is national governments and national interests that set the agenda and decide locally. Thus, one could argue that the actual relevance of this discussion space is to what extent it is useful for the actors in their local context (whether in terms of becoming more European or pushing through unpopular reforms as necessary).
Overall, it appears that there are somewhat different approaches that countries take for this event: some discuss/participate actively, some appear to be giving speeches for the audience at home, and some just do not put too much effort. A similar division seems to apply the stakeholder organisations, but one could argue that they are overall much more active. Perhaps unsurprisingly the students were amongst the most active during the event and largely responsible for public funding becoming the big discussion topic during the debate. Of the draft proposal of the communique that was discussed it was in particular the “public” aspect of funding and automatic recognition that received attention.
The F-word and automatic recognition
Called the “F-word” by one of the panel chairs, funding and in particular public funding was the big issue where perhaps a clearest division of perspectives and perhaps even tension around the final formulation was identifiable – amendments, modified amendments and alternative formulations were suggested, and the final version ended up being “we commit to securing the highest possible level of public funding for higher education and drawing on other appropriate sources“. This formulation looks quite harmless and is perhaps of the type one tends to overlook in a document, however – its initial version was a basis for heated debates.
One can understand the students’ cause on keeping this ideal, even if only for symbolic purposes. The students considered keeping the final formulation with “public funding” as part of the formulation as a victory, as they Tweeted later on the ESU Twitter page. But, as indicated by some of the other contributions in the debates, this wording in the communique is perhaps a minor detail where an intergovernmental statement of intent does not really have leverage at home where political priorities might set set a different agenda. At the end of the day, “highest possible level of public funding” can also mean very little funding in a tight fiscal situation.
The second issue, in essence a much more controversial suggestion of automatic recgnition was in practice actually being overshadowed by the public funding discussion. While there were some concerns voiced of whether this is realistic and what this would mean in practice, the discussion never really picked up on this topic. One can only speculate whose victory this was.
Bologna – revitalized?
So – much discussion about public funding, a communique with not too many provocative aspects, with some ambitions of automatic recognition. Does this provide the new revitalization to the process? When the stakeholders were asked to formulate the relevance of Bologna in the future, the answers were not so very clear. Of course, it is only natural that they see the relevance from the starting points of the groups they represent, but it was quite difficult to see the clear points aside ideational importance of student-centeredness, respect towards diversity, cohesion, public importance of higher education and so forth. The bigger not-so-measurable concepts.
Another thing that sort of lurked behind the discussions was that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish EU activities from the Bologna process. While called the “lisbonisation of Bologna” in research literature some years ago, this division has become even more difficult. In one of their statements, Commission themselves called Bologna aims not complementary, but as a part of their policy objectives.
So now what?  While one should not make too strong conclusions from little evidence, one should note that it is fewer and fewer ministers of education who participate, and the conferences seem to take place further and further away from the traditional core of Europe. As any integration process – the broader the scope and the more members you try to integrate, the more superficial the integration becomes.
Symbolic? For the time being it seems to have become the never-ending saga that seems to have less actual meat on the bones, and the increasing number of countries make it more difficult to create a stronger platform for debate. But can it function as a space for discussion? Of course – but that requires all members to be actively interested in discussing.