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The ritual is very familiar to faculty and staff in American universities. A student applies for graduate studies and comes in with a few graduate units taken at another college, or maybe even a complete Master. The question that needs to be answered when applying for a graduate degree at your university is, what courses did the student take and are they equivalent to your required courses?

The process of figuring out an answer to that question involves some knowledge (personal knowledge on the part of the faculty or staff doing the equivalency evaluation) and some “interpreting the signs” (making assumptions about course titles and if available catalog descriptions) found in the student’s transcript. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know if a course called “Management Tools for the 21st Century” in one university is equivalent to “Modern Tools of Management” at your university.

If we were in Europe we would not have that problem and the reason for that is the Tuning initiative within the Bologna Process. The outcome goal for 2010 (which has been met by 147 universities in 33 countries) is expressed from the student’s perspective this way ”It is easy to move from one country to the other (within the European Higher Education Area) – for the purpose of further study or employment.”

Tuning involves creating a framework that details the responsibility for higher education institutions to establish clear learning expectations for students in each subject area, within a spirit of academic autonomy and flexibility. That last “spiritual” goal is what scares every professor and university who would participate. Will the “clear expectations” for Management Tools for the 21st Century” at Yale, ever be equal to “Modern Tools of Management” at North Carolina State? Should they be?

Tuning clearly states that the objective is not to make one standard that everyone adheres to but “making higher education more responsive to changes in knowledge and its application, simplifying the process for students transferring credits between institutions, and increasing student engagement in the learning process” among others. More than any other provision of Bologna, Tuning is the scariest of the reforms proposed, from the perspective of the faculty.

My old friend at Bologna who watches this process up close expresses the feelings of his colleagues this way. “There’s no question that Università di Bologna courses were not globally competitive, and the main reason was the fact that most of these courses and professors had failed to grow along with the global knowledge expansion.” He continues, “but I don’t agree with the objectives set forth for my course on this topic, nor do I agree with the methods they say I should be using.” So what does he do? “The same thing universities have done for centuries, pretend we are doing something while doing something else.”

The Tuning policy is to be applied by faculty, but eventually all faculty must agree on course outcomes and we don’t know if this agreement is more than skin-deep. Faculty members in Europe have applied Tuning to European studies, education, business, chemistry, earth sciences, mathematics, nursing and others. Outside of Europe, a Tuning-like process has been applied in Latin America within 12 disciplines at 182 universities in 18 countries.

Clifford Adelman a senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy wrote, “In the United States, efforts to benchmark learning outcomes at the discipline level have neither happened systematically nor on any significant scale. Widely applied to a range of disciplines, the Tuning platform could shift the focus in American higher education from consideration of generalized notions of what is indirectly taught at the associate’s, bachelor’s and other levels to specific knowledge and skills that students need to learn and apply, making the value of specific degrees more readily apparent.”

This is an excellent goal to apply nationally, but we don’t have a national Ministry of Education to dictate it, as they do in Europe. Our higher education system is a pluralistic configuration of institutions, each with its own system of governance, traditions, competitive advantages, perceptions of their client’s needs and more. The only way to apply a Tuning policy to the U.S. would involve a massive and coordinated curriculum harmonization process carried out voluntarily at each university. This would happen only in response to a perceived threat, or through the Regional accreditation agencies.

Universities in the United States do not perceive a threat coming from Bologna’s Tuning policy and accreditation agencies are not likely to dictate this policy voluntarily. So what is likely to happen? It is likely that when Tuning is promoted nationally it will suffer the same fate as the “National Application System.”

What? You haven’t heard of the National Application System? My point, exactly.

I‘ll tell you more about it next week.