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A few days into my first trip to Italy in 1967, I was certain I must have been Italian in a previous life. I enjoyed all the architecture, the design of everything, the attire of both women and men; my conversations with Italians, part verbal and part pantomime, but always vivacious. All my meals seemed to be perfect (even on my reduced budget) and there was never a disappointing dessert or an imperfect cup of espresso. I went to Bologna on my first trip to Italy because I have a special attraction for old university campuses and Bologna’s was the oldest in Europe and the root of all Western higher education.

Bologna University

I was baffled by the urban chaos that reigned inside the “via” loop, which went around the campus. The campus itself was a collage of academic buildings without a logical pattern. One building held the social science department, but economics was in one of the several medical school buildings. Very large lecture rooms, invariably overcrowded, seemed to pour out unto the streets. There were professors carrying on emphatically about something or other and students talking to each other, or trying to pay attention, or furiously taking notes. I returned many times and the feeling was always confirmed, Italy was perfect in all areas but one. It was the most disorganized “organizational culture” I had ever witnessed, whether trying to figure out a traffic pattern, or the dynamics of a lecture hall or the electrical system of a Fiat.

I must confess that when I first heard that the Europeans were re-organizing higher education and had labeled the effort the “Bologna Process” I laughed and did not give it much of a chance to succeed. It was a perfect oxymoron –Bologna and organization—so I never paid much attention. The Bologna Process began in 1999; it involved 29 countries and had an end date of 2010. It had as its goal 6 major objectives which began with the adoption of a system of qualification which they called “readily legible and compatible”, the adoption of a degree system founded upon two cycles, that is a 1st (Baccalaureate) and 2nd level (Master), consolidation of a system of academic credits, promotion of mobility (for students, lecturers, researchers and technical-administrative personnel) and a common method for the assessment of quality. Sure.

Imagine my surprise when in 2001 the Prague Communiqué was made public, resulting from the meeting of European Ministers in charge of higher education. The Prague Communiqué defined the actions to be carried out to achieve the six objectives of the Bologna Process and Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to “the objective of establishing the European Higher Education Area by 2010” and set out three new objectives. In the meantime the number of signatory countries of the Bologna Process had risen to 34. Having some experience with European higher education, their centuries old jealousies and rivalries, the multiplicity of languages, organizational systems, governance and control, etc. etc. etc. I once again predicted it would not get anywhere beyond the plan.

The interesting thing about the Prague Communiqué was in the principles it had adopted unanimously. They were 1) autonomy with accountability, 2) education as a public responsibility, 3) research-based higher education and 4) organizational diversity. The key issues to be dealt with centered on a unified quality system which would be built on “a platform of trust” and which proceeded from a principle of equality. Again, these seemed like insurmountable goals for people who made a career out of denigrating each other’s work.

By 2003 the Berlin Conference of the Bologna Process agreed that higher education was a public good. In a continent filled with aristocracies rather than meritocracies, a “public good” undermined the principle of exclusivity upon which the leading institutions were founded. Surely the thousands of private post-secondary institutions, whose philosophy and existence depended on understanding education as a private good, would object to that and that would be it. Not only that, but at this meeting the Ministers emphasized the fact that in international academic cooperation, academic values should prevail. Private universities aside, the mammoth public universities with their government funds and political governance, could not possibly accept academic values as guiding anything other than the writing of papers. The real power would never be academic; it would always be political, or so I thought.

By 2005 a Quality Assurance system was unveiled and it really looked great. It was announced by the Ministers at the Bergen 2005 meeting that, all European Union countries had adopted the two-cycle system including a 3-year baccalaureate. At this point I began to think this process was proceeding with an unusual amount of reality content. Its achievements over the next two years were downright impressive. They succeeded in allowing grants to be portable (taken from one institution to another) a sure sign that the main article of prestige (who did what research) was being eliminated and the fact that credits earned in one institution would transfer to another without penalty shook my skepticism to its roots. Moreover, the institution of student participation at different decision levels and the promotion of integrated study programs and joint degrees at all academic levels completed my conversion. If they can do this, they will succeed, I conceded.

Finally, the Budapest-Vienna declaration of March of this year made it evident that the Bologna Process had succeeded. Ligia Deca, Chairperson of the European Students Union wrote:

“The turning point of the Bologna Process is the move away from formal implementation towards in- depth mindset changes and re-assessment of the already implemented elements. This involves the full, active participation of the entire academic community, with perhaps a societal debate on the impacts of the Bologna Process in order to raise awareness to its potential and to its benefits, but also to the responsibilities and risks that come with deepening this unprecedented voluntary European-wide agenda.”

Through 11 years of toil and progress, encompassing dozens of government turnovers, the original values were reaffirmed and progress was reported. By the spring of this year 47 countries had joined the process and a declaration was issued which stated:

“We, the Ministers, are committed to the full and proper implementation of the agreed objectives and the agenda for the next decade”, that “in close cooperation with higher education institutions, staff, students and other stakeholders, we will step up our efforts to accomplish the reforms already underway to enable students and staff to be mobile, to improve teaching and learning in higher education institutions, to enhance graduate employability, and to provide quality higher education for all.” “We, the Ministers,” – the Communiqué continued—“recommit to academic freedom as well as autonomy and accountability of higher education institutions as principles of the European Higher Education Area and underline the role the higher education institutions play in fostering peaceful democratic societies and strengthening social cohesion.” These are not mere words, as the concrete actions that accompanied them clearly confirmed.

While faculty and administrators working on their own time and with few resources have made most of these changes, the commitment of resources –putting their money where their communiqué is—has begun to flow to institutions and programs in significant ways. Scholarship and research without national boundaries, exchange of faculty and students as institutional needs and individual preferences required, one-degree system, one transcript, and one interpretation of credits, one quality system of accountability. Incredible.

As an American I would love to see our government affirm and commit as follows:

“We, the Ministers, reaffirm that higher education is a public responsibility. We commit ourselves, notwithstanding these difficult economic times, to ensuring that higher education institutions have the necessary resources within a framework established and overseen by public authorities. We are convinced that higher education is a major driver for social and economic development and for innovation in an increasingly knowledge-driven world. We shall therefore increase our efforts on the social dimension in order to provide equal opportunities to quality education, paying particular attention to underrepresented groups.”

The next meeting will be in Romania in 2012. You can bet I’ll be there.