• Harald Leder

    Ms Bieber sings the praises of the Bologna process and thinks that the United States should learn from it. While much is to be said for the Bologna process, on a philosophical level much can be said against it as well. Ms Bieber correctly states that the Europeans have decided to make university education more job relevant, that is to teach students job related skills. This basically throws the education ideal of Humboldt out of the window (for better or worse), towards an “output orientation”.

    Bologna actually borrowed much from the American system in this respect which has been driven by output and pragmatic considerations for a very long time. This outlook has led to an overemphasis of the sciences, business, and engineering fields and eroded much of the internal support for the humanities and social sciences. Foreign languages are especially hard hit by this trend because apaprently they are not needed in a world where everyone speaks English. The reuslt: Students no longer think that they need to be able to speak their own langauge well (let alone another one) or that they do not need to know anything about the world, politics and history. Mny people who create curricula happily agree with them. Not a very positive development in an age of globalization. The European system with its solid schooling is better off because it provides studetns with a mandatory general education during their primary and secondary education time, but Bologna adopted this utititarian approach. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. It can be argued, for example, that the increasing emphasis on assessments, learning outcomes and job readiness stifles innovation and creativity in reasearch an teaching.

    Learning outcomes and assessment have always been drivers within the US higher education system, although they have become a central theme in the discussion only more recently. In a system where everything is driven by numbers and a business appraoch (at least theoretically) even at public universities, accountability is considered key to success. I would argue that this desire to measure everything certainly made its way from the US to Europe, not the other way around.

    Credit transfers within the United States have never been a problem. Cedits in general are defined clearly and there are systems in place that make credit and student transfers relatively easy and transparent. On the other hand the ECTS credit system provides a sense of consistency that in reality does not exist. This is a major issue in traferrring ECTS credits to the United States. Many administrators in the US assume that the system is consistent. They transfer credits according to simple formula which often leads to errors and makes exchanges between the two systems difficult, especially when one follows the AACRAO recommendations.

    I am not sure if we can speak of an “extraordinary demand of individual freedom” in the US higher education system. A closer look at the system of US universities and colleges reveals that there has been an underlying adminsitrative and curricular cohesion and governance for a long time that is much more uniform than the one that the Bologna process created in Europe.

    While there may be no requirement to be accredited, every university that wants to be a serious provider of education must be accredited. Here again, accreditation has been a key ingreditient of US higher education in the United States for a long time while it is still in its beginning stages in Europe. There are not many global accreditation bodies, but European and US Universities are working on resolving these issues in individual dicsiplines, for example in business and engineering.

    Ms Bieber is correct in pointing out that much in the United States happens at the local level in a decentralized fashion. There is also a dualism here between private and public education that is absent in Europe and in some respects a real drain on resources. On the other hand there is competition and a real choice for students to look closely at universities and make the best choice for themselves. Europeans are trying to emulate this system in many ways.

    It is this kind of competition has been the key to the success US institutions of higher education that has made them the envy of the world for the last sixty years and continues to attract the best students world wide. Universities compete for students as well as faculty. They have to offer them the best possible opportunities, something the European system so far has not been able to replicate and that I consider a key weakness in the Bologna process: As long as the hiring processes at European universities are not based on open competition and are not transparent, it will remain difficult for young, qualified researchers to obtain positions.So far US insitutions have benefitted tremendously from this flaw in the European system. A high percentage of those researchers tend to find homes in the United States, something the European Community has recognized, but not been able to reverse. It is competition that has been the key ingredient for the success of US institutions of higher education. I do not share Ms Bieber assumtion that a “few proud examples are clearly not a valid cross section of the full situation”. I think that this statement does not reflect the strength of the US higher education system in general. Ms Bieber’s statement to the contrary, US universities which are not ranked among the top ten in the world consistently operate at the highest academic levels in graduate studies and research. I would invite her to compare research activity, research investment and output of the top 100 or 200 US universities with those at European institutions.

    One last point: Ms Bieber correctly states that governments in Europe have continued to make education a high priority, while governments (federal, state, and local) in the United States do not display the same enthusiasm. This is a serious problem in the US that needs to be addressed at every level of education. On the other hand the importance of government funding is less pronounced in the US because of tuition, research funding, and private support even of public institutions and research. These sources of funding have not been matched anywhere else in the world.

    One question that is continually discussed in the US is the role that government entities should play in all aspects of someone’s life. Her answer is a typical European answer, but that does not make it correct. To assume that governments always have to shoulder the burden of education is one way to look at the issue and has its advantages. The exclusive reliance on governments, however, can also lead to a slow bureaucratic process that not necessarily addresses the needs of the consituents and of an economy that is in constant flux. The current financial crisis in Europe has already resulted in deep cuts to higher education which could not be made up with alternative sources of funding. I applaud the willingess of European governments to continue a high level of investment at all levels of education. The European model and the Bologna process are far from perfect, however, and in my opinion so far have shown mixed results. They have increased student mobility within the European Union. They have forced especially German universities to plan further ahead and pay more attention to students and learning. But I am not sure that they have led to more employable graduates, higher quality of teachig and better research.

  • K Bledowski

    The American higher education system borrowed heavily from Europe as early as 17th century and as late as the end of the 19th century (University of Chicago) in all matters of curriculum, administration, and even architecture. The current strength of U.S. higher education rests on the accumulated institutional memory and best practices borrowed from all corners of the world but mostly from Europe. In this sense, today’s Bologna is but one in a series of imports that American educators have had on offer.

    It is true, as Ms. Bieber writes, that “… [the] U.S. higher education … is characterized by the weak role of the state.” But this is not new. The weak hand of the state in higher education stretches back centuries. During these long decades the state has variously engaged and disengaged from lots of other activities. For example, it took charge, in the 1930s, of insuring all wage-earners against loss of income past retirement. But the state chose not to strengthen, top down, the oversight of colleges and universities. Why? Probably because they thrived and adapted to changing circumstances well without the state’s helping hand. While meddle in things that work well?

    Ms. Bieber, states that “… [the] U.S. higher education … is characterized by … the pronounced institutional autonomy…” Correct again. Even state universities and colleges enjoy autonomy. Educational autonomy breeds competition for status, students, faculty, and goodwill, among others. Competition among universities has proven to be the right incentive for achievement. If achievement is what Bologna strives for, then the U.S. educational system already has it. Why change it then?

    Ms. Bieber appears to deplore America’s “high degree of privatization” in higher education. This could be debated on moral grounds, of course. State and community colleges and universities also charge tuition, and they discriminate among the resident and out-of-area students in how much tuition they charge. The fact that many state universities thrive by being autonomous, and operating under decentralized governance, proves that this mixed model has worked relatively well. The key here is the overall level of funding to assure high-level outcomes, such as research and student achievement. High tuition fees are routinely supplemented by grants and private donations.

    Finally, there is the “political culture of liberalism and individualism” which is supposed to suffuse U.S. campuses with one-track-mind thinking. History gives a far more nuanced answer: college campuses often stoked up non-conformist ideas and left-of-center political movements. Many of these negate liberalism and fight against individualism.

    The Americans continuously learn from outsiders and are open to foreign ideas. But the Bologna process cannot be simply transplanted and deployed here the way it has been over the past decade in Europe.

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