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The Bologna Process 25 years on: higher education quality and international trust

  • 25 October 2023
  • By Tessa Blackstone
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Baroness Tessa Blackstone. Baroness Blackstone was Minister for Education and Employment from 1997 to 2001, and has led two universities: Birkbeck, from 1987 to 1997, and the University of Greenwich, from 2004 to 2011. She sits in the House of Lords as a Labour peer.

As part of the Bologna Process, the UK is committed to the European Standards and Guidelines, internationally agreed good practice in quality oversight. QAA’s policy paper highlights that England has diverged from the standards in four areas:

  • Its inconsistent approach to including students on review teams;
  • Transparent publication of reports;
  • Lack of independence in quality oversight; and
  • Absence of up-to-date assessment of the quality of all providers.

The policy paper outlines how realigning with this good practice could help retain international trust in UK higher education.

When I was Minister of State for Education and Employment, the UK and many of its neighbours recognised that closer alignment of higher education systems would boost the competitiveness of higher education across the continent and in the wider world. Better harmonisation would enhance student and staff mobility, boost research power, attract international investment, and keep UK higher education competitive.

It was in this spirit that, 25 years ago, the Bologna Process was born. Through agreements at the Sorbonne, and in Bologna, the UK Government and eventually most of its European counterparts (both within and outside the European Union) committed to a system of ‘easily readable and comparable degrees’.  If you look back at the documents, you will see my signature as the UK Government representative. We recognised that ‘the international recognition and attractive potential of our systems are directly related to their external and internal readabilities’.

It was this harmonisation exercise that led to the consistent use of undergraduate and graduate degree cycles, and the use of credit to recognise chunks of learning across Europe. These are now essential, expected elements of our higher education system.

Crucially, this exercise also signified a commitment to common practice for overseeing higher education quality. Practice that instilled trust and confidence in the quality of provision.

The UK has historically been ahead of the game when it comes to setting an example that other countries choose to follow.  Meeting the commitments under the Bologna process required much more work by some other European countries which had less sophisticated systems. Since then, the UK has supported countries around the world in developing systems in line with this internationally agreed practice in quality assurance. It is seen as the gold standard for higher education systems globally.

The fact that the English approach to quality has diverged from the principles that the UK Government agreed under Bologna – relatively quickly, and without real explanation – risks the UK higher education sector’s position as world-leading. It also fractures UK coherence, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland embodying approaches that align with the agreed Bologna principles, presenting a confusing picture to international stakeholders.

The House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee, chaired by my colleague Lord Hollick, recognised this in its inquiry into the work of the Office for Students, and recommended the English system’s urgent re-alignment with international good practice. The current English approach to quality oversight has obscured the ‘readability’ that the Bologna process successfully created between higher education systems.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has long been an influential advocate for UK higher education globally.  QAA’s policy briefing published today, which outlines how to retain and instil international trust in the English quality system, is timely and important. The briefing outlines a list of actions policymakers should take. Amongst recommendations for politicians to adopt a collaborative global outlook, and champion higher education on the world stage, is a recommendation to bring back international ‘readability’ in the English quality system, so that trust in the whole UK brand of higher education can be maintained and increased. Top of this list is to reinstate independence in the quality system, and to facilitate a risk-based way in which stakeholders – particularly from overseas – can access transparent, up-to-date information about the quality of all providers in the sector.

The English higher education sector has changed enormously since I served as Minister. It is right that the approach to quality has evolved. But this does not exclude continuing to honour the UK Government’s commitments to good practice in quality assurance. The reasons for our commitment 25 years ago – attracting international investment and sustaining UK competitiveness – are still relevant today. We are now in danger of missing a trick to position ourselves in the strongest position in the international market.

Over the coming months, concerns over financial sustainability within the sector will intensify, and the competition from higher education sectors around the world will grow fiercer. International trust in English, and by proxy UK higher education, is vital for its reputation, research power and financial sustainability. England should do what it can to retain that trust and the UK’s position as world-leading in higher education.

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1 comment

  1. Prof. Amir Sharif says:

    I couldn’t agree more. As I myself return serendipitously from annual leave in Bologna myself today it is vital in my opinion that the UK retains its prominence in international education and a commitment to quality. “Over here” the UK still does maintain its catchet as a higher education force – albeit having gone (or lost?) it’s way since the Bologna accords somewhat.

    What the UK must now do is to have internationalisation at the heart of it’s HE sector – overcoming the muddle of TNE, and the Heath-Robinson approach that means each HEI must chooses its own path to be evaluated against what remains of the B10 conditions.

    We need clarity, with purpose and with intention – designing internationalisation into the curriculum both inbound and outbound more than ever before.

    Otherwise we will be at the behest of a renaissance “European tour” view of higher education.

    As I depart the region today, we should take on board the words of one of Italy’s greatest minds, the very words of Leonardo da Vinci himself, and apply it to internationalisation in the UK HE sector to bring a pioneering spirit back post-Bologna:

    “Learning never exhausts the mind”.

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