Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 1

Educating Europe - an article from EURASHE

Higher education
Europe’s present educational responses to global challenges are built upon the achievements of the first decade of the Bologna reform process, which have been formulated into action lines that will better serve the needs on the institutional level...
Stefan Delplace
The creation of the European Higher Education Area has been a response to European and global societal needs, as EURASHE’s Stefan Delplace explains...

The reform of European higher education, commonly known as the Bologna Process, has led to the creation of an area for European higher education that now covers 47 countries. Over the years it has evolved from an internal European higher education reform process into a comprehensive response to general societal challenges uniting government policymakers, higher education institutions and official organisations, and diverse stakeholders such as students, and employers. This reform has increasingly attracted international attention and has inspired similar initiatives in other regions of the world.

This way, the Bologna Process has also contributed – and continues to contribute – to formulating answers to challenges imposed by major political, economic, social and technological developments on a global level. Fundamental worldwide changes occurred following the rise of international markets and the evolution of communication and information technology in the last decades of the 20th Century. These developments can be summarised in terms of globalisation, individualisation, digitalisation and an information boom. The economic and financial crisis has not only deepened and quickened these worldwide changes, but also set new challenges to the world in terms of restructuring the knowledge society through new creative energies and innovation. There also now exists a need to formulate new responses to issues like climate change and immigration, as well as to the widening gap between rich and poor.

Higher education became deeply involved in these evolutions: through education and training, by creating new competences for new jobs in a lifelong learning context for example; through basic research, but also increasingly applied research and experimental development; and through implementing new knowledge via high-impact innovation. The latter occurred mostly under the impulse of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 strategy, which calls for more and better-educated multi-skilled graduates.

A new decade of structural reform of higher education on the institutional level

After the first decade (‘Bologna’ 1999-2009), in which a legislative framework was put in place in an increasing number of countries, and following the creation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in 2010, we have now entered a stage of further implementation on the ground floor, or the ‘institutional level’.

Indeed, the original priorities of the Bologna Process – transparency, 3-cycle structure, mobility, quality assurance, the social and European dimensions – have been implemented mostly in diverse national structures, instead of really reshaping structures and processes in the wide range of higher education institutions. It is precisely on the institutional level that the need is felt for an approach that is at the same time European and global. This is because in various domains, stakeholders in the process, mainly students and employers, are confronted with evolution in the international sphere. Students are trained to become global citizens, and in business circles even the most locally embedded SME often has international connections and potential customers.

The EHEA has in this second stage of the process (2010-2020) identified priority areas that have relevance outside Europe as well, and provide a help for countering negative global societal evolutions and developments, such as unemployment, discrimination of disadvantaged groups, and the effects of the economic and financial crisis.

Europe’s present educational responses to global challenges are built upon the achievements of the first decade of the Bologna reform process, which have been formulated into action lines that will better serve the needs on the institutional level: recognition of qualifications and study periods abroad, an inclusive society, quality assurance and transparency of higher education, employability, linking higher education and VET, and last but not least diversified funding mechanisms.

These are issues that are also relevant for higher education in other regions in the world, and the action lines jointly developed by governments and stakeholders, which are a specific feature of the European HE reform process, are expected to have an impact on both European and international levels.

Post-Bologna educational responses

The Lisbon Recognition Convention, elaborated jointly by UNESCO and the Council of Europe, regulates both access to higher education and recognition of qualifications. As it is the most comprehensive and productive convention on these issues so far, it could serve as a basis for a global recognition convention. The growth of transnational education has only sharpened the need for a robust agreement on recognition of qualifications on an international level.

Mobility strengthens capacities to adapt to different scientific and cultural contexts, as a consequence stimulating the higher velocity and easier accommodation of new ideas and emerging concepts. Therefore, mobility is necessary for survival in a globalising world, but through its many facets of interchange, it also makes a strong contribution to the development of better societies. It can be especially profitable for students from less privileged social groups – for whom higher education mobility is the only means towards acquaintance with another culture – allowing them to make a contribution towards the improvement of openness within global societies.

Contributing to an inclusive society remains another aim of the Bologna Process and fits into strategies in many other regions as well. Widening access to higher education is an important step towards a more sustainable and democratic society, to which a growing number of individuals with different backgrounds can make equally valuable contributions. The individual learner ideally attains the highest level of education that is in line with her or his capacities, skills and desires, regardless of the socioeconomic, cultural or national background.

The employability of graduates has from the beginning of the Bologna Reform process been considered a cornerstone in developing the three-cycle structure of higher education. The underlying concern is to make higher education more responsive to rapidly developing societies, with equally rapidly changing demands from the world of employment. This calls for flexibility and innovation in the content as well as in the structuring of higher education programmes. Though the demographic and economic context may differ considerably according to the region, creating a fair income for all through equal job opportunities is an internationally upheld principle.

Multidimensional transparency tools

If diversity in higher education provision is to be considered an asset, a transparent, multidimensional classification system of instruments that are designed to benchmark HEIs on research and innovation, teaching and learning outcomes, services to society etc. may help identify and make visible such diversity.

The development of such transparency instruments, is however, inextricably linked to a well-functioning Quality Assurance system across the EHEA, and to well-described Qualifications Frameworks that are closely related to the mission of the specific higher education institution.


In the current economic crisis, which induces some governments to cut the budget of higher education, increased government funding is essential to maintain the current level of studies, but may not be enough to increase substantially the proportion of the youth that will complete a higher education programme. The accrued benefit for society from the education system in the form of skilled employees, entrepreneurs and independent researchers vastly outweighs the current investment. This makes it both realistic and desirable to invest efforts and resources into education, research and innovation. Robust and systemic investment in higher education and learning is a key response not only to the current crisis, but also to long-term challenges in our societies.

Linking higher education to other forms of education

Though Europe more than other regions faces the challenges of a decreasing active population and therefore has to be creative and resourceful in how to better exploit its human potential, in other parts of the world as well there is a growing interest into developing VET systems that rely on innovative methodologies like work-based learning, dual learning initiatives, and the promotion of transversal skills, particularly entrepreneurship.

European countries are therefore in a good position to share with other regions a world in which higher education, vocational education and continuous learning are seen as allies for the benefit of the entire society.

In order to facilitate this, we should be supportive of knowledge that is shared and freely available to exploit, in line with UNESCO initiatives like Open Educational Resources (OER), as a key to wider access to education on a global level.

Stefan Delplace
Secretary General
European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE)

[This article was originally published on 9th April 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe 01]


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