EESE 4/2006

EESE Special on the Cultural Revolution of the 21st Century


Three Circles of Academic Hell?

How the European model of educational cycles will reform, reshape and refocus Humboldt's university

Reinhold R. Grimm

Jena University
Chair of the Association of German University Faculties


Since nothing in life is certain and in politics even less so, I shall begin this survey of current academic affairs in Germany by insisting that by being involved in the Bologna process in different functions and by drawing the many threads of this experience of vision and strife together, my outlook on the process itself has shifted from scepticism and incredulity to confidence, which, however, may not be widely shared yet. However, the European system gears the first cycle to training students for employability without regard to the research paradigms that, in the past, have constituted an academic discipline.

Nowadays, higher education policies will not be discussed without referring to the employment market, academic education in cycles, credits, diploma supplements, bachelor and master degrees. The higher education systems in Europe will, hopefully, converge towards a unified structure, however virtual it may remain. The German public has been traumatized by experts, high on rhetoric, continuously using Italian place names ranging from the Pisa catastrophe to the Bologna process…

Catch-phrases such as reform may still be contested among the parties, but when the European higher education system and the Bologna process leading to it is at issue, even in reform-resistant Germany, the federal states, whatever the coalition in the respective regional government, are unified in expressing their enthusiasm about it, notwithstanding minor nuances. The reform of higher education in Europe is pressed ahead with mixed reasons being given: the course of study will be shortened and higher education will primarily be oriented towards professional qualifications. Internationalization is to be advanced, the exchange of students and post-graduates encouraged, and the competitiveness of the European system restored.

Universities, which have suffered from a steadily increasing flow of students so relentlessly mediocre, are going not only to be improved, but to become "excellent". Facing this boost of enthusiasm, the opponents of the Bologna process are hardly any less exuberant in their protest. The arguments which have been brought forward by the opponents of the new system of higher education in Europe and which, however, should be taken seriously can be summarised in three sentences:

  • It is predicted that running the system on economic lines will finally destroy Humboldt's university and the traditions of higher education in the German-speaking countries, if it has ever been able to cope with the rush during the last decades, given that it has managed to survive at all...
  • the Anglo-Saxon model of higher education, which is grounded in a different history and different economic backgrounds, will mindlessly be forced upon an 'established' institution and academic degrees with international reputation such as the diploma and the traditional master will be abandoned without necessity;
  • the academic disciplines which are the nucleus of self-organisation in the sciences and the humanities are menaced by re-grouping and disbandment; the independence from political and economic interest, which is the basic principle of science and learning, is believed to be threatened.

A brief summary of the Bologna process

What is really the core of the problem? More than 40 European member states have committed themselves to the objectives set out in the Bologna Declaration (and subsequent conferences), which are to be implemented by 2010 as means to construct the European area of higher education. In the joint declaration of the European Ministers of Education, the reconstruction of the systems of higher education was decided upon, and the reforms have already been launched. However, it cannot be denied that the so-called Bologna process will bring about radical changes for our universities. The reform will deeply affect both the course of studies and its contents as well as the organisation and administration and, finally, the individual student's decisions.

Briefly, the following items can be fitted into the framework of the higher-education reform:

  • Degrees are to be comparable, but not identical.
  • A number of instruments, which, on second thoughts, appear to be excessively formal and technocratic, have to be designed and will severely affect the German system of education in its entirety.
  • Throughout Europe, a system essentially based on two cycles (three cycles including the doctorate) will be adopted. The degrees are labelled according to the Anglo-Saxon system.
  • The comparability of the degrees awarded in different countries (BA/MA) will be warranted by a number of measures:

    • analogous patterns of studies;
    • modularisation of courses;
    • concurrent examinations;
    • a system of credits to regulate the amount of time and effort required for each subject;
    • a diploma supplement in order to promote employability and to make individual variants accountable;
    • an accreditation or quality assessment of the new courses of study replacing the authorisation by the ministry of education

Germany's little peculiarities

Beyond any bureaucrat's most reasonable expectation, a complicated system of administering the Bologna process has already come into existence in Germany. Obviously, considering the question of authority and the fact that any alteration in higher education policy has to meet with the approval of the respective lands, Bologna enthusiasts have started down the slippery slope of believing that they know better. The amendment to the 2002 federal law providing guidelines for higher education demanded the introduction of the BA and MA degrees; after complex and detailed negotiations the conference of the German ministers of education agreed upon guidelines to be followed by all the federal states, which, in fact, considerably reduced the scope of the necessary reform. The standard period of study required for the BA is not to exceed four years, while the MA will take one to two years, which means that the overall period of study is not to exceed five years. The first cycle will be concluded with the BA degree which will already be relevant to the labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The most momentous decision taken by the conference of the German ministers of education, however, will affect the traditional distinction between university and polytechnic or university of applied sciences: the old distinction will have vanished in the future. Only a few disciplines will be, for the time being, exempt from the Bologna process: law, medicine, and the training of teachers, the latter being affected only recently. But even in these fields, as it appears, the Bologna model will prevail for good. To conclude, the European model of study has been crippled by the German bureaucracy, since the potential of the Bologna process has been widely disregarded.

It is hard to over-emphasize that the Bologna process aims at a radical change in European higher education:

  • A system essentially based on two cycles will be designed to professional qualification and no longer to fulfill the requirements of the academic disciplines following their own paradigms. Thus, study courses will be reshaped into modules and continuous examinations, which requires a new design of study programmes and the appropriate teaching.

    In Germany, this is concomitant with the gap closing between polytechnics and universities. BA and MA programmes can be implemented both at universities and university-like colleges and at polytechnics without, however, challenging the distinguishing educational aims of these institutions, as the statement by the conference of the ministers of education runs.

  • If there is no substantial equivalence, universities are permitted to introduce both consecutive and non-consecutive study courses together with BA and MA programmes. Furthermore, MA study courses can be implemented for graduates even if there is no corresponding BA study course run by the university.
In conclusion one might argue that the Bologna process will not produce a unification of study courses in Europe, but in a common framework once achieved there will be a greater variety and an increasing diversification of study courses possible. This, however, demands new forms of quality assessment. In this respect, to say the least, Germany is at the top of the academic heap, as a comprehensive system of accreditation has already been created, which, believe it or not, causes rising concern about its lack of transparency.

The quarrel over the Bologna process has not been made up yet.

First of all, the Bologna process was invented by politicians, precisely by ministers of education and their advisers who cannot be supposed to be intimately familiar with the realities of the higher education system. Nowadays, politicians are prone to equate 'international' with 'Anglo-Saxon' and to overrate their scanty knowledge of American top-level universities. This is the only explanation for the fact that, temporarily, North American degrees were considered a cohesive model which was identical all over the Anglo-Saxon world, and that the Bologna process initially encountered stiff resistance. The principal argument was that a model of studies which was more or less American was imposed upon the European system, showing a complete disregard for its differentiations and other cultural and economic conditions.

Secondly, significant resistance was equally built up by the spreading terminology borrowed from economics. This particular feeling seems to be evidenced by catchwords such as 'quality assessment', 'output orientation' and 'competition'. Placing more emphasis on the employment market seems to menace the freedom of science and learning; to the followers of the Bologna process, rationality and economics tend to be identical.

Thirdly, resistance grew because of the tactics politicians are currently employing: they combine targets which are reasonable, or at least partially so, but hardly compatible with the Bologna process itself. The Bologna policy is to guarantee the comparability of higher education systems in Europe, reduce the duration of study to three years (undergraduate cycle), improve the professional qualification of graduates, break up outdated academic structures etc.

Perhaps things will turn in the right direction, whatever political and economic motifs had been important at the beginning: the reform of the European system of higher education may take a turn for the better so that we need to have trust in an independent and more differentiated judgment. The Bologna process has irreversibly changed our system, which is obvious; accordingly, we should come to terms with its redeeming features and take them up. I take it that we are being offered a unique chance for improving our higher education systems. However, reform can only be achieved if the universities, the faculties and disciplines are granted autonomy and the freedom to organise themselves, which has not been secured yet.

European and national aspects

Complex institutions that have grown throughout history are generally known to change only under pressure from outside; hopefully this will also occur to the universities as part of the Bologna process. From the national point of view the process may force the higher education system with its disciplines into a reform of study courses which is centered on contents and teaching efficiency and which is customer-oriented, i.e. designed for the benefit of the students. This would be a real shift of paradigm.

At both the international and the European level the Bologna process aims at extending the exchange and increasing the fluctuation within a unified space of learning, which is to be encouraged by the similarity of study courses and degrees. The main problems, however, will come from the wider scope and the higher degree of differentiation in the new study courses, which will prevent most of the students from changing the university before graduation.

All the talking may also belie the fact that the current implementation of the Bologna process differs widely in Europe. Many officials of British universities believe that the Bologna process exactly means what they have always done. In many Romance countries such as Italy and France, it is just the system of naming that undergoes changes. One can obviously divide any traditional study course into two or three cycles (including the doctoral degree) and thus fulfill the Bologna requirements. To conclude, we are agonizingly aware of how long it will really take to unify the European higher education system. The reform movement, however, will gain momentum if at least some of the Bologna elements are accepted not as identical yet, but as equivalent. National traditions will be continued, but equally there should be ample scope for innovation.

Studies and vocational preparation (BA)

In the following I would like to focus on the effect the Bologna process has on particular states. The key position is held by the first cycle of the system (BA), which will remain the only one for the majority of students. The bachelor is geared to employability which is unfortunately supposed to signify vocational qualification and not vocational training, as it was obviously misunderstood by many politicians who are engaged in the heated discussion of the university system. It is one of the deplorable things that the advice coming from the association of the German university faculties, who are the true representatives of the disciplines, was loftily disregarded. If the BA degree is to 'qualify' for a profession, this will mean not only a pretty vague description but may prove a rather detrimental postulation.

None of our universities has ever trained students for a vocation in spite of claiming to do exactly that, which holds true for any other university system in Europe including the British one, with regard to both particular subjects and the disciplines in general. The notion of a first cycle (BA) designed for the employment market will set us a perennial problem: who will be allowed to continue in the second cycle (MA)?

If 'employability' is understood as vocational training, this will already be a revolution, for it will force us to set about rebuilding the system from scratch. At our German universities, at least, study courses are hardly directed at the future profession of the students. This holds good for law and many disciplines in the humanities, which are structured on the current paradigms of knowledge and research irrespective of the expectations and career aspirations nourished by the students. In former times this may have made sense, when only a very small part of the population studied an academic discipline and when many vocations did not require any academic training yet. In present times, however, this must be ruled out.

In this regard, the Bologna process is in itself an achievement similar to the Copernicus Revolution. In the political jargon the new university system is called 'output-oriented': study courses are to be directed at employability in a sufficiently explicit manner. To put it in more modest terms: No university will be allowed to implement or to continue study courses without making plain in which way they are useful for the student's professional career.

The universities will have to take the responsibility for their graduates, even if the genuine vocational training will be done on-the-job as before. In different disciplines the training for employability will admittedly differ due to the various traditions. In the humanities and social sciences students will be trained for specific vocational fields, whereas in science and engineering different solutions will be worked out. If the universities are able to direct their students to vocational fields, this will already be an achievement. If politicians every now and then suggest, however, that a steering mechanism for the control of the system in general should be developed to estimate the vast number of engineers and physicians or the small number of literary scholars and clergy needed in Europe or Hamburg and Vienna, the notion of relief will have been reversed.

In the employability debate many people lose sight of the critically decisive issue: study courses will be designed no more solely to the requirements of the respective discipline, but up to a certain degree they will be separated from the original disciplines in order to become inter-disciplinary. Thus they will be more differentiated than before, but at the same time multifunctional in their orientation.

Standard model versus differentiation

Initially the Bologna process gave the impression of creating uniformity, which would mean that a standard model would unneccessarily be imposed upon a year-long tradition of study courses, but this was due to deliberate exaggeration inherent not only in the terminology but in the linguistic flatness customary for some countries as well, which, however, is not being practised in many other places in Europe. In Austria, for instance, instead of "bachelor" and "master" the terms "Bakkalaureus" or "Bakkalaureat" and "Magister" are used to uphold time-honoured tradition.

One should keep this simple fact in mind: the introduction of the BA cycle might be hampered by a number of difficult organizational impediments. In a system which is essentially based on cycles and which in Germany is to replace the state examinations in the federal states, there are a variety of possible combinations between the first and second cycle. Accordingly, contents in the study courses must be adapted both to a BA degree which is designed for the labour market and to the MA which is research-oriented. The BA cycle must be planned as vocational training and, at the same time, a preparation for a subsequent graduate school programme. The ensuing problems vary greatly according to tradition in the discipline and to the respective mode of operation.

It is hard to deny that there are vocational fields and job opportunities open to BA graduates, but in disciplines such as medicine and theology a system of study cycles can hardly be taken for granted. The so-called 'smaller subjects' in the humanities will have to face difficulties caused by a BA system whose only achievement will merely be the ability to enrol in classes of Ancient Oriental Studies or Egyptology. For me, it is out of question that in engineering as well as in the sciences the standard of knowledge required for the present diplomas can only be reached at the end of the second cycle, i.e. the MA. For these disciplines an effective solution should easily be found within the Bologna framework, too.

I take it that a solution will be feasible to the two disciplines which have been terminated by state examinations and have thus been exempt from the Bologna process, namely medicine and law provided that the appropriate training of a physician or a fully qualified lawyer cannot be done in the first cycle. However, qualifications for vocational fields close to medicine and specialized branches such as insurence law should be reached with a BA degree. Universities would be well advised not to leave these areas of operations to the existing and future polytechnics. Anyway, instead of imposing a tight corset on the old system the Bologna model should permit solutions leading to differentiated functions, which lie at the heart of the reform.

Teacher training

Teacher training is currently being re-organized on the lines of the European model but there is so far no visible effort to cooperate among the federal states in Germany, which would be absolutely essential. A similar development becomes apparent in Austria, which confirms the suspicion that the enthusiasm shown for splitting teacher training into two module-based cycles can be attributed to budget issues. Bearing the Pisa results in mind I cannot emphasize too much that degrees geared for the labour market should be at a premium and not at a discount. Moreover, in both the BA and the MA cycle preponderance must be given to units and modules defined by the academic disciplines. It would be disastrous, however, to restrict the disciplines to the first while in the second cycle didactics are exclusively or predominantly on the university curriculum. One deplorable thing is the fact that some universities have already picked the worst option.

A reduced course of study in the discipline up to the BA or as late as in the MA cycle would only produce a somewhat vague notion about the true character of the discipline and an equally scanty knowledge of its basics. By no means would future teachers have the appropriate training and obtain the required professional competence. There must be didactic modules in both cycles in order to enable teachers to impart knowledge to students in an appropriate and successful way. Teachers must not be only one step ahead of their students; they must be familiar with their subject as a whole and be able to convey the essentials of their discipline to the students. Thus it will be only the MA degree that principally stands for a complete professional training. As a general rule this means that the training of teachers should be reserved to the universities for the essential qualification in science and scholarship.

Comparability, modules, differentiation

The target of organizing BA courses will compel universities to take account of the fact that they have to cope with students from very different backgrounds and with different aims. There will be students wanting to benefit from higher education and pursuing just a BA degree to be ready for the labour market together with students seeking a deepened academic training during the second cycle with the aspiration to an academic career. Unfortunately, this most significant issue has not received proper consideration by academic reformers yet. During the first cycle intensive tutoring should be integrated into the schedule so that supervision similar to the school system should be supported in many disciplines.

However, the future of the Bologna process depends largely on the degree of flexibility with which its formal requirements are turned into practice. The trouble, however, is the transition from BA to MA cycle including, with regard to some disciplines, the changeover from polytechnic to an MA programme offered by a university. The mobility between the different parts of the higher education system should be increased without incurring any loss of quality. Thus, it is not to be expected that in every discpline all the graduates will take up an MA programme, as even today only a very few students with a diploma or master degree continue for a doctorate. Transition must remain flexible, but without any loss of quality. The distinctions between the disciplines and the different types of academic institutions will not vanish, but the forms and targets of training will still vary greatly.

Strategies such as introducing a system of modules and transfer credit points with which Europe-wide comparability should be attained will altogether not produce the required result, but a paradoxical effect. In reality, the comparison between a number of programmes will be less frequently possible considering the fact that each university creates modules and study courses which are unique. Regrettably the growing trend towards differentiation has lead to an unprecented degree of incomparability and complexity. A BA or MA degree can never be identical, neither in Europe, in Germany, nor in Austria, but it must, at least, be comparable. At the level of our formal approach, the complexity of the new higher education system is coming to the fore, as has always been the case in pre-Bologna times; in the past, moreover, a tightly organized discipline such as law had been 'different' in Munich from what was taught in Vienna or in Jena.

The European model of higher education as a flexible system

In my opinion the advantage of the Bologna process is the fact that pressure is being put on the authorities not only to discuss reform but to innovate, which is hardly possible without a far-reaching revision of contents in academic training. Nobody should be allowed to misunderstand reform as the adoption of a given system of higher education, whatever the proximity to Anglo-Saxon terminology. The most prominent American universities are different from government-funded institutions in Europe. Even the adoption of elements taken from the French university system, such as competition and selective access at a stage which is definitely too early, will have undesirable consequences. In actual fact the traditional university system in the German-speaking countries is deeply rooted in the Humboldt ideology and has been designed, as well as the British one, for a small number of students only. In a society where an increasing proportion of the population is expected to receive higher education in the near future the academic system must be organized quite differently in order to provide as many citizens as possible with the opportunity to acquire a larger educational horizon, and to open a higher number of vocational fields to them. We must now face the consequences of the avalanche that is taking on momentum and, while odious to many involved, change our system of academic training accordingly. This process of reform should include the greatest number of variations in the greatest number of languages possible. Let me add that the latter is meant both verbally and metaphorically.

We have to keep in mind that the Bologna process can be implemented in a much more flexible way as any higher education system in Europe would have permitted so far. What we actually need is a system of higher education in which students can leave open the option at the beginning of the first cycle whether they want to continue for a MA degree or enter a vocational field. Consequently the transition between the different types of higher education, which will be available in the near future, must be kept as flexible as possible, which equally holds true for the structure of a study course (modules). The passion for regulation, which, predictably and unavoidably, will rage in Germany in particular, must be restrained, since it would neutralise the most positive features of the Bologna process. We should be well aware of the fact that the traditional systems of higher education in Europe restrict access at too early a stage. I believe, however, that the up-coming European university system should be organized in a way that, first of all,it enables students to take up BA programmes according to their inclinations, followed by a selection of students according to their scholarly aptitude for the transition to the second cycle.

We need all this worked out down to the last detail. Teaching staff will no longer be able to dispose of the different module elements on their own. In many disciplines people will be compelled to adapt, which in fact means a long process that has just commenced. A study course does no longer express the logic inherent in science and erudition, but the teachers involved are under the obligation to assess every single module for its vocational relevance beyond the boundaries of their discipline and their own personal interest, safeguarding, however, the structure of the discipline.

And lest we forget, there is no science without freedom. However, the freedom of science should not be confused with the administration of a study programme. The identity of a discipline and its research targets must be considered in another light than the study courses shared by it. Similar arguments have been set out against the so-called 'scholarization' of academic programmes. This may hold true for the first cycle, but the standardization of academic training is by no means comprehensive nor compulsive, for in many fields students are allowed a choice between several modules. Within a given module, the same goes for the teacher who can freely configure the scope of the contents, the sequence of seminars, the method of instruction and the final examinations.

To conclude: if the Bologna process is ever to reach its targets, universities must enjoy a greater degree of autonomy than they are granted, for instance, in Germany, in France or Italy. So far only Austria has drawn the appropriate conclusions. In additon to autonomy, a new system of quality assessment at the universities, which has to operate independently, must be developed. The ongoing quarrel over authority and administrative competence between the government and the federal states in Germany is a classic case in point how the bureaucracy refuses to relinquish power. However, this may be a question of mentality, which becomes obvious as the new system of accreditation emerging with difficulties in Germany produces a new bureaucracy instead of the former one. In the future the continuation of a study course or a discipline will depend not so much on the evaluation by a steering committee or by the ministry but on the assessment by the agency for accreditation. This might be a step in the right direction, as long as the new accreditation authorities and the new bureaucracy do not reach for regulating power instead of offering wide scope to differentiations. What we need in implementing the Bologna process is not a levelling of the field, but, as the English Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope once said, "order in variety".