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Mourning Bologna


The venerable old Italian university town of Bologna seems in danger of losing its long-established good name. The risk to the city’s reputation, ironically enough, is due to developments in higher education, the very field in which its fame was established. In 1088, the first European university to be broadly independent of Church control was founded in Bologna, setting new standards in jurisprudential scholarship and, through its example, leading to the founding of other universities across the continent.

However, “Bologna” in contemporary European discussions of higher education now largely refers to what is known as the Bologna Process. The Process, begun just over a decade ago, is intended to reduce the traditional diversity of European universities, standardizing and unifying them along “American” lines. This was to be done by unifying degrees, replacing them with the BA and the MA, and implementing the modularization of teaching, standardized testing, comparable outcomes, and other elements seemingly aimed at ensuring a unified field with greater mobility between countries and greater parity before funding agencies. The Process came to carry the name “Bologna” thanks to the city’s hosting, in 1999, of a much-vaunted meeting of the education ministers of twenty-nine countries (not to mention their substantial retinues). The meeting launched a radical and still-ongoing process of transformation of Europe’s universities and higher education institutions. The most extreme version of the Bologna Process is to be found in Germany—and thus for the countless critics of the process in Germany, the name “Bologna” has come to have highly negative connotations.

It all began quite simply: after a single-day session, the twenty-nine ministers published a declaration of intent—with sparse content and negligible legal effect—announcing that the creation of a common European educational area was vital to the promotion of geographical mobility, the common recognition of qualifications and, more generally, the economic development of the continent. Ten years and five biennial follow-up conferences later, the results of Germany’s “Bologna” are announced on the Web site of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research:

The Bologna Process was launched in 1999. It has contributed to the successful modernization of the German institutions of higher education. Germany and its European neighbours have set themselves the task of creating a European Higher Education Area by 2010 in order to succeed in the international competition for the best brains. In Germany, we have taken advantage of the biggest higher education reform for decades to improve the quality of study courses, to enhance employability and to reduce the length of studies.

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