Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

Mensa Uni Koeln

Since the Bologna agreement of 1999, some 47 European states have committed to simplying their degrees around a common Bachelor/Master/Doctor structure and moving to a common credit framework. German universities found the implementation process pretty demanding, but they managed it. Now, though, the new structure itself is about to be reformed.

Higher education reform in Germany is always a lengthy process, not least because education – and therefore university policy – is devolved to the sixteen Länder. National initiatives therefore involve negotiation and consensus between the sixteen ministers and the university rectors. This procedure, though lengthy, is well-established, and seems to work well. The two groups issued a common declaration on post-Bologna reforms last week.

The main problem seems to be that universities effectively made as few changes as possible in order to conform with the Bologna requirements. Overall, the levelof compliance seems high. Most German universities moved in 2009/10 to a new Bachelor/Masters degree structure. However, some specialist arts institutions have held back, there are question marks over regulated subjects such as medicine and law, and across the sector there are still some Diplom students grimly hanging on from before the reforms, who therefore have to be catered for.

Yet apparent compliance has tended to conceal a reality of rigidly prescribed degree structures, with limited possibilities of flexibility; and a pattern of student assessment that lacks transparency and detail, and is widely seen as unfair.The possibilities of part-time study (known usually as ‘career-accompanying learning’) and mobility weakest of all in the estalished public universities and – perhaps predictably – highest in the many private universities that now exist across Germany.

Among the main aims of the Bologna reforms were to enable student mobility and promote lifelong learning. The first has been achieved to some extent, and the decision is now to develop further the transparency and scope of recognition of credit gained abroad. The second requires more flexible use of teaching and administrative staff, particularly in view of ‘an increasingly heterogeneous student population’, as well as greater use of recognition of prior and international learning.These changes are, the document says, likely to involve additional costs.

In Germany, there was also a hope that the Bologna structure would improve retention. I’ve not been able to find recent figures, but what I hear from colleagues is continuing concern that retention and completion rates are still low by western European standards. At the same time, friends and colleagues expressed a certain reform-weariness over the latest package.

Implementation of the post-Bologna reforms will now fall to the Länder and individual institutions. A failure to change is likely to strengthen further the private higher education sector, which already makes part-time study one of its main selling points. But it is interesting that the education ministers and rectors across Germany are agreed on the importance of part-time learning, at a time when the opposite appears true across the UK.




Why the Scottish Government is wrong about tuition fees and the EU

>If Scots vote to leave the UK in September, the Scottish Government plans to continue to charging tuition fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not for anyone else in the European Union. I’ve argued before that this is unlikely to happen, and today a former EU Commissioner for Education and Training is quoted as saying that all EU students would have to receive ‘the same treatment’.

Only in Scotland, and only this year, would anyone think this news. The legal position is quite clear. European legislation on free movement of labour – one of the central founding principles of the EU – covers higher education, which is treated legally as a form of vocational training. There have been challenges in the past to the definition of higher education as a form of vocational training, and the courts have always rejected them.

If you’re interested in reading about the origins and rationale of this rather quirky legal status, you can always get a library copy of my now rather dated book on European education policies. But the main consequence was that it allowed the EU to develop a series of mobility schemes and collaborative projects, and still underpins such programmes as Erasmus+.

So under current European law, the Scottish Government must treat all EU citizens equally in respect of access to higher education. Of course, the Government can try to get the law changed, and it might well wish to have higher education redefined as an area of national rather than European competence, but it has not said it will do so. And at present I can’t see how a small, new member state will be able to gather together enough support for the European Commission to change its current stance.

In its White Paper on independence, the Scottish Government effectively says that it will seek an opt-out. It doesn’t use that phrase, of course, which is popularly associated with the Coservative Party. Rather, it says that it will if necessary present an ‘objective justification’ for an exemption, based on the unique and exceptional position of Scotland in relation to other parts of the UK, on the relative size of the rest of the UK, on the fee differential, on our shared land border and common language, on the qualification structure, on the quality of our university sector, and on the high demand for places.

Michael Russell, Scotland's Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Michael Russell, Scotland’s Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Will this wash? Well, I think it just about possible, but highly unlikely. If accepted, it would open up a massive boîte de Pandore. And here are just a few of the most obvious reasons why.

At the most general level, it runs against current EU policies on higher education, which aim at improving professional mobility by increasing the numbers of students who attend a university in another European country than their own, and aligning the qualifications structures of universities in different European countries. More particularly, it would present a precedent for other countries in similar situations (eg. Denmark/Sweden, Wallonie/France, Netherlands/Flanders, Luxembourg and everyone). It would also annoy the socks off higher education ministers and rectors who have persuaded university staff to teach in English. The practical consequences elsewhere would also be significant, starting with the effects in our neighbouring island of Ireland.

So you can just imagine how other ministers of education will react when Mike Russell, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, sets out his plans to the European Council on Education. I would like to be in that room.

The importance of honest skills: Russian education

Visiting Moscow, I was interested and surprised to see some local journalists describing British schools as a positive benchmark. When it comes to the use of new technologies for teaching, apparently we have one of the world’s more advanced systems. One report, for example, noted that while fewer than 17% of Russian classrooms were equipped with interactive whiteboards, 75% had this particular bit of kit in Britain.

This was refreshing for me, coming from an island where moaning about ourselves could well become the next Olympic sport. Of course, what matters is not whether the technology is in place, but also how we use it. But my interest was sparked off in quite another direction, which is the economic pathway being followed by Russian capitalism. While most countries are looking to education and research as central to economic innovation and sustainability, Russia appears to be relying on a combination of access to natural resources and hospitable regulatory frameworks for trade.

By all the conventional indicators, this approach is proving remarkably successful. The IMF calculates that output per head – once at laughably low levels compared with Western Europe – has already overtaken Portugal, and will shortly overtake Spain. Public debt is low. The public signs of affluence and growth are all too visible – if anything, the Moscow city-region may well be over-heating, with workers increasingly unable to live within commuting distance of their jobs.

What is less clear is whether this pattern of high growth is sustainable. Very visibly, it is leaving a lot of people behind. The elderly, and pensioners in particular, are largely excluded from the new wealth. Furthermore, the growth is largely a product of high energy prices. Once oil and gas production start to decline, this factor will perforce become less important.

Third, government and business transactions often proceed through networks of corruption. Even a casual visitor can spot the exchanges of bribes that are needed for people to bend the rules and make things happen. When it comes to international business transactions, though, corruption is a problem. I am not so naive as to suppose that western bankers and manufacturers will not offer a ‘bung’ – it is more that a culture of corruption introduces new levels of uncertainty and risk, and undermines long term confidence and trust.

And impressive Russian growth has not yet been accompanied by increased investment in education and skills, or in research, at the levels achieved in recent years by other fast-growing economies like China.  Just 3.8% of GDP is allocated to education, compared with 5.3% in the UK and over 8% in Malaysia and Denmark.

Things are not too bad in the sprawling higher education sector. Teaching standards enjoy a relatively high reputation, and Russia joined the Bologna process in 2003. It has amended its degree structures in line with the bachelors/masters system common across the whole of Europe. Nevertheless, even though public funding has risen, it has done so from a low base and under-funding is causing problems.

Some of the best Russian scholars now work in western universities, while the remaining academics are often isolated from the rest of the world. The country’s universities come nowhere in the international league tables. The system has expanded partly by creating new institutions, often privately funded, and this is raising questions about quality and effectiveness. And of course, Russian graduates enter a labour market where key decisions can be made on the basis of connections and corruption, not ability, conditions that hardly favour meritocracy.

So far as lifelong learning is concerned, Russia has a fragmented scatter of institutions, many of them left over from – and more or less damaged by – the past. Understandably, it is mainly oriented towards vocational adult education, with a smaller provision of more general types of education. Russia faces a general process of social aging, but is currently tackling skills shortages by attracting young immigrant workers, mostly from the former member states of the USSR.

So if education generally is neglected, adult education is in a dire position. A recent report from the European Association for Adult Education describes the state-directed institutes for vocational adult education as ‘conservative’ and highly institutional. And while there are organisations who campaign for a more civic and socially purposeful approach to lifelong learning, their influence is limited. They could probably benefit from our support.

EAEA’s report on Russian adult education is available at: