Pros and cons of the creation of a European higher education area
The Bologna process is a far-reaching reform that aims at creating a European higher education area by 2010. The reform is expected to foster the mobility of citizens, the employability of graduates, and the overall development of the Continent. Among the central features of the Bologna reform is a re-definition of the curricula, a student-centred learning, the definition of learning-outcomes, the development of competencies, and the implementation of a two-tier system, where a three-year shorter first cycle (bachelor’s degree), is followed by a one-and-a-half or two-year second cycle (master’s degree).
Jacobs and van der Ploeg (2006) discuss the potential benefits of a two-tier system of three- or four-year bachelor's degrees and one- or two-year master’s degrees and present
several possible explanations for the better performance of the two-tier Anglo-Saxon system relative to analogous systems in Continental Europe. First, a two-tier system reduces the cost of wrong choices made by students. Secondly, a two-tier system promotes a more flexible progression into postgraduate studies by allowing students to enter the labour market earlier and to find out what competencies they should develop when they eventually go back to university to obtain a master's degree. Thirdly, students can complete their studies earlier. Harmon et al. (2003) found that in countries where graduates enter the labour market earlier, as in the UK two-tier system, returns from education tend to be the highest. All those factors, it has been argued, may render European higher education more responsive to the needs of an increasingly flexible labour market and, therefore, enhance graduate employability and returns to education.
However, this view is not consensual and critics of the Bologna process stress that new curricula are compressed versions of longer programs, and that there will not be enough time for assimilation, reflection, and a critical approach to learning, which will undermine the quality of the degree. Under these circumstances, the employability of the new graduates might be reduced, when competing with graduates from the previous system of a longer first cycle. Whether Europe will reap the benefits of the current reform of the European Higher Education Area remains to be confirmed by labour market and students’ mobility data, which is not yet available.
Evidence from students’ choices
So far, studies have analysed the perceptions of society on the Bologna reform through survey evidence. Most noticeable, reports by the European University Association have collected information from hundreds of European universities and have provided a broad picture of the implementation of the Bologna process. Crosier et al. (2007) conclude that the coexistence of the old and new systems and the insufficient information conveyed by higher education institutions has most likely favoured the surge of controversy on its implementation among higher education institutions, students, and labour markets. According to that paper, an indicator of scepticism concerning the benefits of the Bologna process is the fact that only 22% of the institutions surveyed reported that most of their students will enter the labour market after finishing the first cycle. Employers' lack of information on the Bologna principles, on the one side, and the belief, among academics and parents, that the master's level is the “real degree”, on the other side, may explain the apparent reluctance of graduates to enter the labour market after concluding their first cycle of studies.
Cardoso et al. (2008) contributes to that debate by assessing the public confidence in the Bologna process by checking how supportive students are of the shorter first cycle, using Portuguese data. Namely, students' demand behaviour, as expressed by their first choice when applying to higher education, is analysed during the period of adjustment. Study programs that have adopted the Bologna principles have benefited from an increase in demand, which is indicative of students’ support for the shorter first degree. Nevertheless, their receptiveness to the curricula changes varied across fields of study and with program size. We observe an unambiguous increase in demand for programs in the field of education adopting the Bologna principles. At the same time, the lower demand for health programs that followed Bologna’s directives might reflect some scepticism. For some programs, namely in economics and business, law and social sciences, architecture, natural sciences, and technologies, the impact of Bologna turns out to be conditional on the size of the program; in other cases Bologna does not have any impact (humanities, agriculture, and sports and arts). Overall, the positive Bologna effect decreases with the size of the study program.
The impact of the Bologna process also differs according to the implementation strategy. Studies opting for an integrated master’s structure, that is, studies that combined the first and the second cycle in a unique programme that leads to the master’s degree, have benefited from additional demand, regardless the size of the programme.
Cardoso A., Portela M., C. Sá and F. Alexandre (2008), “Demand for higher education programs: the impact of the Bologna process.” CESifo Economic Studies 54(2): 229-247.
Crosier, D., L. Purser and H. Smidt (2007), Trends V: Universities Shaping the European Higher Education Area, European University Association, Brussels.
Harmon, C., H. Oosterbeek and I. Walker (2003), ‘‘The Returns to Education: Microeconomics’’, Journal of Economic Surveys 17(2), 115–55.
Jacobs, B. and F. van der Ploeg (2006), ‘‘Guide to Reform Higher Education: A European Perspective’’, Economic Policy 21(47), 535–92.