Building a Bridge over the Atlantic? The Impact of the Bologna Process on German and U.S. Higher Education

In the last ten years, German higher education has gone through tremendous changes. The first pan-European reform process—the so-called Bologna process—was the driving force behind these transformations.

In 1999, twenty-nine countries, including Germany, began this unique enterprise to create a unitary “European Higher Education Area” by the year 2010.[1] Its main purpose is two-fold: At the European level, the reform process furthers the common recognition of educational credentials, the promotion of academic and student mobility, as well as quality, transparency, and accountability for learning outcomes. At a global scale, Bologna aims to increase Europe’s economic competitiveness with other regions such as North America or Asia. For reaching these goals, Bologna draws on some Anglo-American characteristics, such as standardized three-tier study structures of Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degree programs. In addition, Bologna’s instruments comprise a credit system to allow for transferring and accumulating student workloads among European countries, diploma supplements, qualifications frameworks, and European cooperation on quality assurance. Fascinatingly, the convergence process quickly produced successful examples of implementation[2]—although it works on a purely voluntary basis without forcing the participating countries to adopt its reform agenda.

Despite all positive intentions, the Bologna reform was not free of unintended consequences. For example, student protests in countries such as Austria and Germany criticized that Bologna would hamper equal access to higher education because the Verschulung of study courses would not only complicate studying abroad but also aggravate the incompatibility of working and studying. In addition, they diagnosed a lack of democratic participation of academic staff and student organizations, and a marketization of education particularly through reforms accompanying Bologna, such as the introduction of tuition fees and the reorganization of departments and universities.

Whether the process is interpreted one way or the other, Bologna indisputably has caused a stir in the majority of European countries, and completely changed higher education structures and governance. In Germany, Bologna put education at the top of the national political agenda again. Acting as a catalyst for substantial transformations in the higher education sector, it is the largest reform process since the establishment of Humboldt’s principle of unity of teaching and research in 1810. As the Bologna process’ co-founder, Germany completely updated its traditional policymaking procedures and structures in higher education,[3] and reallocated political power resources to implement Europe’s reform agenda. Already in 1999, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the States (Ständige Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder) quickly introduced the new study structure, as well as a credit transfer system. In addition, a quality assurance system, newly regarded as a prerequisite for fostering economic competitiveness, was established. These extraordinary reforms reflect a paradigm shift of the historically-rooted national guiding ideas on education from an input orientation toward an output orientation: No longer do the number of hours matter, but instead, which competences students have acquired in their degree programs.

In federalist Germany, the supremacy of the states (Länder) in the field of education provides a stumbling block for reforms. Furthermore, the guiding principles of education as a civil right and the Humboldt education ideals (Humboldtsches Bildungsideal) of a holistic general education conflicted with Bologna’s ideas of job-related, economically-oriented study programs. Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that Bologna was successful in triggering far-reaching academic and administrative changes. A core factor for Bologna’s success story in Germany consisted in the long-lasting pressure for reform since the German reform of the Higher Education Framework Act in 1976. Considering great challenges such as increasing costs of higher education, high drop-out rates, and problems of inefficiency, Bologna provided the German federal government and university administrations with the opportunity to launch reforms in teaching and governance structures.

In view of Bologna’s deadline of 2010 for establishing a single area of higher education in Europe, the issue arises of the potential impact on other regions such as the U.S. What are the U.S. responses to the Bologna reform agenda? Can the U.S. learn from the European reform, or is Bologna a “European solution to European problems”? Only recently have signs of Bologna’s growing reach emerged in the U.S. Surprisingly, Europe has turned out to be an ideal laboratory from which Americans could draw lessons.[4] In observing how some European countries have completely reinvented their university system and identifying the successes and the drawbacks, U.S. universities and higher education associations do not advocate a “copy-paste” of the whole Bologna agenda onto their education system. Rather, using a “pick-and-choose” strategy, they are concentrating on tools for improving accountability.

The Bologna process has the potential to transform U.S. higher education by impacting its understanding of accountability. For instance, the project “TuningUSA” of the private Lumina Foundation aims to introduce “tuning,” regarded by Americans as a key element of Bologna for reforming higher education.[5] Based on the joint development by European and American scholars, the process of tuning creates a shared understanding among stakeholders of the subject-specific knowledge that students must demonstrate upon completing degree programs. For this purpose, the participating states of Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah are drafting learning outcomes and mapping the relationship between learning outcomes and employment possibilities in six fields of study. These accountability instruments are developed at the level of each specific educational discipline, and include diploma supplements, national qualifications frameworks, and definition of learning outcome and of student workload.

Whether TuningUSA will finally extend to the U.S. as a whole is still unclear. In the discipline of History for example, the project has already started to expand across the entire country. If TuningUSA turns out to be successful, it may serve as a model for other states. In a possible revolution for the U.S. system, this would shift the guiding principles on education in the direction of outcomes and competencies as opposed to input, whereas presently, the reputation of universities and colleges still counts more than concrete information on students’ learning outcomes.

In this context the question emerges, why would a country like the U.S. introduce Bologna changes when it is not formally obligated to do so? Like in Germany, political motives mainly reside in the area of economics. American higher education has suffered much from the current economic climate, which has affected the sector’s financial resources. At the federal and the state levels, fewer resources are being given to institutions. To cover operational costs and make up for the budget shortfalls, American universities try to attract full-paying international students, and increase tuition and fees.

Interestingly, the financial crisis may be improving transatlantic convergence toward the Bologna model. Rising costs of higher education are likely to increase U.S. engagement in coordinating its system with Europe. The American system needs more internationalization. In 2010 international students contributed over $21.2 billion to the U.S. economy, and their enrollment increased 32 percent over the last decade. However, the share of international students in U.S. academic higher education is only 3.4 percent of all enrolled students with most students coming from China and India; compared to Germany with 9.3 percent, and Australia with 20.9 percent.[6] In the global race for talents, competitors—particularly from Asia—are improving their branding techniques and spending more money on keeping their students at home.

In addition, the crisis increases the need to justify the types of spending, and raises questions about accountability. What are institutions delivering? What is the added value of a degree? The orientation of U.S. policymakers on corresponding Bologna objectives is highly advisable in order to ensure understanding of how funding will be directed. This is because Bologna intends to promote transparency and efficiency among universities and their degree programs—a crucial aspect to consider for corresponding future trends in the U.S. In times of empty state coffers and increasing pressure for economic effectiveness, comparable and binding quality parameters would be an important factor for cost reduction in the field of education.

Despite these trends, America has not been very responsive to the international impulses of Bologna.[7] The decentralized U.S. system is only at the very beginning stages of adapting to Bologna aims, and there is no clear pattern for convergence yet. For example, accreditation of higher education institutions stays optional; national qualifications frameworks and a credit transfer system are still lacking. This stands in sharp contrast to efforts of other non-Bologna regions such as South America and Australia that quickly reacted to Bologna and realized many of its aims.[8] As an example of this “Bolognization,” twenty-seven Asian-Pacific countries launched the Australian-led “Brisbane initiative”[9] to collaborate on recognition and quality in higher education, and to better align their educational systems with international developments.

The slowly-paced American response toward coping with international initiatives such as the Bologna process or the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)[10] may be attributable to the country’s historical legacy. Education is highly connected to the cultural heritage of a nation. Stemming originally from colonial times, traditional hallmarks of U.S. higher education impede its ability to draw lessons from its transatlantic partner, and thus limit Bologna’s leverage on the U.S. This is characterized by the weak role of the state, the pronounced institutional autonomy, the marked decentralization of governance, the high degree of privatization, and the political culture of liberalism and individualism.

In times that require major transformations in the area of higher education, these features turn out to be problematic. There is nearly no dictation of these policies by the federal government, and little more at state level—and even then only for public universities. No single federal agency exists that would be responsible for internationalizing higher education. Hence, there is no national strategy for dealing with Bologna. Instead, only “case-by-case evaluation” at the level of single institutions exists for the recognition of Bologna credentials; sometimes even at the level of departments or faculty members. In contrast to Germany’s nation-wide “internationalization strategy,”[11] U.S. efforts to recruit international students are initiated by single host campuses’ global outreach programs and recruiting events, or by non-governmental organizations.

In the case of higher education, the U.S. is suffering from a self imposed blockade due to an ideology that stems from an extraordinary demand for individual freedom and the refusal of a strong central government. Today the U.S. perception of itself as an independent entity no longer fits the globalized world. In order to adapt quickly, clear, unified policies should be made at the national level in order to steer these changes. The present state of U.S. higher education exhibits only minor changes that do not do justice to current political requirements, which puts the U.S. claim to global leadership at risk. A further limiting factor is a strong sentiment both in America and some other countries that the U.S. has “the best” system of higher education. This has been exhibited in notable sources of university rankings, which boast that 8 out of the top 10 universities in the world are in the U.S.[12] However, when one considers the hundreds of universities in America, these few proud examples are clearly not a valid cross-section of the full situation. On the contrary, it would seem that a “halo effect” from the top universities makes higher education in the U.S. appear to be more cutting-edge as a whole—both in America and abroad.

Comparing Bologna’s impact on the two federal countries of the U.S. and Germany, the European higher education reform completely transformed German higher education, and shifted it toward student learning-centered measures, transparency on outcomes, and employability. Although implementation of Bologna objectives is not obligatory for the participating countries, ten years after Bologna began, Germany has strongly converged on the European model, and has thus become more uniform to some extent despite its federalist structures. This step of conforming to Bologna standards has definitely not yet reached the U.S., where Bologna has not had much influence. First, this is because the U.S. does not have any “organic” organizational structures that are comparable to those of Europe for implementing Bologna-like changes. Second, for the U.S., the argument of mobility across country borders has not been stressed as an important factor for education, as it has in Europe. Thus, national-personality factors will keep U.S. higher education as it is—even as the country is observing the changes sweeping Europe through Bologna.[13]

Globalization increasingly forces countries to be competitive. This holds true even for a global power like the U.S. Similarly to Germany, the U.S. is no longer in the position to unilaterally determine education policy, but it must instead pick up on the trends of other countries and regions in order to stay ahead of the game. In the years to come, global economic threats will force the U.S. and European higher education sectors to implement radical change. With its effectiveness in increasing the competition among both universities and countries, the Bologna model is unparalleled in its ability to bolster higher education.

The Bologna process does not only provide solutions to European challenges. Between now and its envisioned conclusion date in 2020, the European reform process has the potential to become a global template for higher education in the world’s knowledge societies.

[1] Bologna Declaration, The European Higher Education Area, Joint Declaration of the European Ministers of Education in Bologna, 19 June 1999.

[2] Benelux Bologna Secretariat, Bologna Beyond 2010: Report on the Development of the European Higher Education Area, Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Ministerial Conference 28-29 April 2009 (Antwerp: Albe De Coker, 2009).

[3] Dennis Niemann, “Turn of the Tide – New Horizons in German Education Policymaking through IO Influence,” in Transformation of Education Policy, eds. Kerstin Martens, Alexander-Kenneth Nagel, Michael Windzio and Ansgar Weymann (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010): 77-104.

[4] John Yopp, “Convergent Evolution of European and U.S. Education Systems: Adapting to the Environments of Globalisation,” in Internationalisation of European Higher Education. An EUA/ACA Handbook, ed. Michael Graebel, et al. (Berlin: Raabe, 2008).

[5] Clifford Adelman, “Learning Accountability from Bologna: A Higher Education Policy Primer,” IHEP Issue Brief  (July 2008).

[6] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2010).

[7] Michael Dobbins and Kerstin Martens, “A Contrasting Case – the U.S.A. and Its Weak Response to Internationalization Processes in Education Policy,” in Transformation of Education Policy, eds. Kerstin Martens, Alexander-Kenneth Nagel, Michael Windzio and Ansgar Weymann (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), 179-198.

[8] Eva-Maria Vögtle, “Beyond Bologna. The Bologna Process as a Global Template for Higher Education Reform Efforts,” TranState Working Paper No. 129 (Bremen: CRC 597, 2010).

[9] Asia-Pacific Education Ministers,The Brisbane Communiqué (2006), (20 November 2011).

[10] Tonia Bieber and Kerstin Martens. “The OECD PISA Study as a Soft Power in Education? Lessons from Switzerland and the U.S.,” European Journal of Education 46:1 (2011): 101-16.

[11] Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF), Strengthening Germany’s Role in the Global Knowledge Society – Strategy of the Federal Government for the Internationalization of Science and Research (Berlin: BMBF, 2008).

[12] Shanghai Jiao Tong University Institute of Higher Education, Academic Ranking of World Universities 2011,  <> (1 December 2011).

[13] Interview No. 6, October 2011.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.