It is an old European tradition to look at symbols as a way to understand the world. The University of Bologna is believed to be the oldest continually operating degree-granting university in the world, which makes the Bologna name both prestigious and symbolic. Therefore, it is fitting that the Bologna Accord has become the name for the sweeping reform of European universities that is poised to change the shape of European education—and business education—forever.
Under the Accord, also known as the Bologna Agreement or the Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate (BMD) Reform, each country’s national university tradition will be aligned with a new European educational standard. The 45 participating countries are working together to define what is meant by common education degrees. The goal of the new standards is to encourage universities to think globally, while teaching locally.
The initiative was launched in 1999 and is due to be fully implemented by 2010. At that time, the benefits could be great. All participating schools will have more visibility, and students will find it easier to move between countries and universities as they pursue their educations. On the other hand, there are possible negative consequences as well, including homogenization of programs and loss of cultural diversity.
It’s already clear that fully implementing the Bologna Accord will not be easy. Europe’s rich variety of countries, regions, cultures, languages, and citizens is its source of wealth, but it also makes true integration a challenge. For Europeans, the permanent paradox is that they must balance their cultural differences with their hope for unity.
The intent of integration is to create a European citizen with local roots and European wings. Students who travel throughout Europe to attend school will not only interact with academics and fellow students on campus, but also get a chance to meet people in the streets, in the corporate world, and in the places where they live. They will learn what is specific to their culture and what is shared by millions of others. A positive awareness of their new, broad citizenship will motivate them toward even more European integration. Education will be the major force that drives the creation of the “European man” and brings social satisfaction to all citizens, regardless of culture or rank.
European business schools might have an easier time with the Bologna Accord than some liberal arts and sciences universities, because since the 1980s they have been promoting joint programs among themselves and with U.S. schools. The agreement nonetheless will have profound impact on the entire European educational system.
Each country must find a way both to protect its home culture and to design an open system that facilitates the mobility of students and visitors.
A History of Integration
Europe has been striving toward some degree of legal and institutional integration since the Rome Treaty established the European Economic Community in 1957. The central objective of integration is to provide all European citizens access to economic prosperity and high standards of living. This is achieved by engineering national systems in areas such as economic policy, public security, and customer protection. Higher education was widely democratized after World War II, and in 2005, more than 40 percent of the current generation had some level of higher education. No national or local scheme could have matched such an expansion.
The Bologna Accord is not Europe’s first attempt specifically to focus on the integration of education. In the 1980s, many European institutions joined the ERASMUS initiative, intended to allow thousands of students easy access to universities across the continent. ERASMUS, which still operates today, makes it as easy for students to register for a term 600 miles away as to take a course across the street in their home towns. Over the last 20 years, more than a million students have won ERASMUS grants to study in Europe.
As the ERASMUS initiative began to take hold, it was clear there were only two ways to allow mobility to European students on a grand scale without disturbing the curricula of participating schools: Design programs with built-in interruptions long enough to allow students time to study abroad; or design an academic process that recognized the courses students took and skills they acquired at other institutions. The latter was obviously the most sustainable and started to become the norm. Business schools in particular began to synchronize their programs to allow for easy exchange of students and faculty.
This enhanced mobility led directly to improvements at institutions across Europe. Every student or faculty member who visited another country was able to see differences in processes and outcomes; many returned home with ideas for improvement. At the very least, these ideas generated interesting discussions in classrooms and cafeterias. As the sharing of ideas led to more standardized programs, it became easier to implement benchmarking systems, joint research activities, and inter-institutional collaborations. Mobility has done more to change management practices at the university level than any reform policy suggested by any administrator.
In the 1990s, universities began moving from bilateral agreements with other universities to a broader set of European rules—what has become the BMD system. Now, each degree is more precisely defined in areas such as duration, academic credits, and content equivalence. For instance, a bachelor’s degree will consist of 180 credits and a master’s degree of 120 credits. A student can gain a maximum of 60 credits in one year’s time, regardless of the subject or the intensity of the learning process.
As the Bologna Agreement is implemented, each country must find a way both to protect its home culture and to design an open system that facilitates the mobility of students and visitors. Each country has to compare its national educational system to other European nations and then modernize what is below accepted norms. In countries where both public and private education systems operate, the government must end state monopoly of degree-awarding rights. At the same time, individual business schools must examine their offerings and compare them to the programs at other schools—transforming them if necessary. Obviously, these changes are not simple, and implementation is proceeding at a slow pace.
Change for the Better
While the Bologna Accord is forcing schools to reassess and reconstruct their programs, most of these changes have been positive. For instance, each school decides how to validate the credits from other programs. To determine how to qualify those outside courses, program directors must take a hard look at their own courses, and they also must consider the opinions of the students involved. Because of this type of internal audit, some institutions have grown more focused on their own specializations and have improved the quality of their offerings.
Schools also must craft strong programs if they want to attract students from other countries. Then, to make sure their classes will be accepted at the students’ home universities, schools must develop widely applicable assessment methods and learning objectives. They must devise metrics to measure goals, achievement, and student satisfaction. In many cases, none of these systems were in place before.
There are many other benefits to the educational reform prompted by the Bologna Accord:
- Students become individuals; they are no longer simply citizens who must accept the quality of education available in their nations.
- Faculty can employ more innovative teaching methods as the new system makes these methods more viable. At the same time, faculty must comply with the European Credit Transfer System, which forces them to justify their methods and the content of their classes.
- The curriculum and the classroom are both revised to make globalization an integral part of study.
- Institutions continually upgrade their offerings and market their strengths to attract more students.
The Bologna Accord could turn out to be a boon for both civilization and peace.
The underlying theme to all these changes is improvement in education as a way to serve students and increase the overall quality of European universities. For business schools in particular, these changes facilitate an easy exchange among schools around the world, enhancing the global aspect of the b-school curriculum.
Risks and Challenges
Of course, the necessity for some conformity among institutions has also forced other changes, and not everyone approves. To induce students to visit them, many schools have had to begin offering classes in a new language, such as English. In other cases, schools that used to grant degrees based on input—such as the number of years students attended the school or the number of hours they sat in class—have had to shift to a focus on outcome, demonstrated by skills, knowledge, participation in internships, and so on. Still other schools have had to shorten their programs to satisfy student demand or align with more general practices.
Some critics consider this inversion of academic logic to be a Copernican revolution and believe many of these changes to be detrimental to education. Meanwhile, a debate has sprung up on the dilution of local cultural values in the new supra-nation of Europe. Some rhetoric pits local against global, national against European, and region against state.
Critics point to other risks as well. The primary one is that European business administration programs could become too homogenized, particularly at the master’s level. Prior to the Bologna Accord, European management programs were designed according to three great trends: macro/micro economics theory, the rationalization of existing business practices, and imitation of the American MBA model. The fear was that the American MBA pattern would come to dominate as the Bologna Accord standardized business education.
So far, that threat seems to have been avoided. British business schools, for instance, have been very innovative in diversifying their programs. Meanwhile, even in the U.S., programs are not identical, because there are as many different opinions about what makes a “real” MBA as there are programs themselves. Thus, some differentiation is inevitable.
The risk of homogenization is also lowered because various corporations want to recruit certain kinds of people. Business schools attempt to differentiate their programs in part so they have a way to market their graduates. In fact, the Bologna Accord has allowed lesser-known schools to enter the competition for students and faculty. The accelerated innovation in teaching methods, course content, and infrastructure has allowed these schools to stand out from their rivals.
The Bologna Accord has brought European schools to the situation economists call “sectorial performance improvement created by increasing market visibility and economy.” That is, the whole market segment has been uplifted by the common drive toward improvement.
In countries where competition for students and faculty has been intense for decades, business schools have been quick to adopt the BMD degree system as a way to make themselves even more attractive. As they become internationally known, these schools have started to perform well in the European rankings. France’s business schools are so competitive, in fact, that seven of them placed within the top ten “Bologna Masters” listed by the Financial Times in 2006.
This sort of systematic improvement mirrors what is happening to European schools as they strive for recognition from AACSB International and other accrediting bodies. Schools working to meet accreditation standards improve their programs and become more competitive—and they are also more likely to market themselves aggressively to potential students.
This is good news for students, although institutions may have a difficult time ahead as the field becomes even more competitive. Yet, overall, European business schools can only become stronger as they pursue integration and accreditation. They will work together to create a new concept of “European management.” As their programs continue to grow stronger, they will attract more students from around the world, formulate alliances with more peer schools, and participate in the globalization of management education.
During the Renaissance, only a handful of students could acquire a multicultural education through travel, but today the Bologna Accord allows millions of students to do so. If such an experience means that these young men and women will no longer look at their neighbors as dangerous or ignorant, the Bologna Accord could turn out to be a boon for both civilization and peace.
Thierry Grange is dean of the Grenoble Ecole de Management in France.