TRENDS AND ISSUES IN LEARNING STRUCTURES IN HIGHER EDUCATION IN EUROPE:
This document is meant as a contribution to the follow up work to the Sorbonne Declaration of May 1998 which called for the harmonisation of the architecture of higher education qualification systems in Europe. Its main purposes are to map areas of convergence between these systems in Europe (mainly EU/EEA), to identify trends affecting them and to indicate ways towards greater convergence in the future.
The survey of existing structures shows the extreme complexity and diversity of curricular and
degree structures in European countries. The Sorbonne Declaration recommended that studies should be organised in an undergraduate and a graduate cycle, but did not provide an indication of their duration. The debate that followed focussed on the alleged existence (or emergence) of a European “model” with 3 main levels of qualifications requiring 3, 5 or 8 years of study.
No significant convergence towards a 3-5-8 model was found. Whether traditional or newly
introduced, bachelor-type degrees require 3 to 4 years, and many European countries without bachelors have first degrees in 4 years; there is however a high degree of convergence towards a duration of about 5 years for master-level studies; but there is no 8-year standard duration for doctoral degrees. In addition, whereas the UK, the US and most countries in the world - except in continental Europe - apply two-tier (undergraduate-postgraduate) systems, the length of studies and the degree structures vary considerably within and between these countries, and duration tends to be expressed in academic credits rather than in years.
Several important trends affecting the structure of degrees/qualifications in Europe could be
identified. There is a strong and growing governmental push towards shorter studies, first aimed
at reducing the real duration of studies to their official length (which is typically exceeded by 2 to 4 years in many countries), and more recently through the introduction of first degrees in countries with traditionally long curricula without an intermediate exit point. Recent reforms in Germany and Austria have introduced new bachelors/masters curricula on a voluntary basis
alongside traditional diplomas, whereas in Italy and France existing curricula are being re-arranged in a first and postgraduate cycle. Elements of two-tier systems exist in many other
European countries, and it seems that currently only a few countries in the EU/EEA do not have, or are not experimenting with two-tier curricula in at least part of their higher education system.
In countries with a binary system, the line of divide between the university and non-university sectors (and their degree structure) is become increasingly blurred. Most countries have adopted, or are adopting various types of systems for the transfer, and to a lesser extent also the accumulation of academic credits; most are compatible with the ECTS system, which is gaining ground at many institutions. There is a marked trend towards more autonomy of universities, coupled with new initiatives for quality control and evaluation in many countries.
In recent years, European higher education has been faced with mounting challenges from abroad.
Transnational education delivered in English by foreign/overseas providers through branch campuses, franchising, or by electronic means has grown rapidly in many European countries; a
whole new sector of higher education is emerging alongside traditional, national, state-regulated systems, but until now it has been largely ignored by governments as well as universities in Europe.
Four main avenues of combined action which may foster the desired convergence and
transparency in qualification structures in Europe are being suggested.
* The gradual adoption of an ECTS-compatible credit accumulation system. This would enhance
the flexibility of national/institutional systems (in particular in view of the development of lifelong learning), bring them more in line with each other and with world systems, and ease mobility both within and from outside the EU/EEA area.
* The adoption of a common, but flexible frame of reference for qualifications. A rigid, uniform
model (like the 3-5-8 model) is neither desirable nor feasible in Europe. In line with the analysis of existing systems and reforms in progress, the following broad frame could serve as a common reference, while at the same time allowing for flexibility and differences in countries and subjects (length of studies are expressed not in years, but as the number of academic credits that must be
successfully completed (one academic year corresponds to 60 ECTS credits):
- sub-degree level (certificate, diploma): 1 to 2 years worth of ECTS credits; - first degree level (bachelor, honours, other first degree): no less than 3, no more than 4 years
worth of ECTS credits;
- master level: about 5 years worth of ECTS credits, of which at least 12 months worth of
- doctoral level: variable (about 7 or 8 years in total).
The main conditions for meaningful first degrees of the bachelor/honours type are being set out.
Key factors are the introduction of new curricula (instead of a sheer re-packaging of existing ones), a guaranteed level (gauged on the basis of knowledge and competencies acquired rather than time spent), real possibilities on the market labour, a clear separation from postgraduate studies, and formal accreditation. Short master programmes (12 months) present specific
opportunities for intra-European mobility and international competitiveness.
* An enhanced European dimension in quality assurance, evaluation and accreditation:
- compatible quality assurance systems, especially regarding the setting of threshold standards
based on learning acquired (outputs) rather than on time spent and curriculum content (inputs); - independent evaluation leading to European quality labels in broad subject areas; the current
vacuum for independent evaluation in Europe would best be filled through agencies independent from national and European authorities, and working along subject lines; they could draw on existing and future European-wide subject-based networks;
- a coordinated approach to quality standards for transnational education, which raises the
question of the recognition of foreign private providers.
* Empowering Europeans to use the new learning opportunities. Compatible credit systems,
understandable degree structures, increased quality assurance and an more European labour market are structural improvements which would create a whole new range of learning
opportunities for all; their impact would be even greater if they were combined with measures such as short master degrees favouring new types of mobility, the further strengthening of the
NARIC/ENIC network, counselling with a European dimension, and the elimination of remaining obstacles to student and teacher mobility.
The combined impact of the suggested action lines would also make European higher education more understandable and attractive to students, scholars and employers from other continents; they would enhance European competitiveness and thus help to consolidate (or in the eyes of
many, to re-establish) its role and influence in the world.
TRENDS AND ISSUES IN LEARNING STRUCTURES
IN HIGHER EDUCATION IN EUROPE
(Final version - revised after the Bologna meeting of 18-19 June 1999)
The main purpose of this paper is to provide information and observations on the current structure, recent trends and possible avenues for change in the architecture of higher education systems in
Europe. It should be seen both as a follow up document to the Sorbonne Declaration of May 1998 and as an input to the Bologna meeting of ministers/governments and higher education representatives on 18-19 June 1999.
A survey and discussion of the architecture of higher education systems covers by definition all the various types of higher education, even though some of the topics may be more specifically relevant for the sub-system of university education. While the focus is on member countries of the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA) the overall perspective within which trends and issues emerge in higher education is in many respects that of Europe as a whole.
Given the scope and complexity of the spectrum of issues to be covered, this report will not deal with the following items, even though they are an important and integral part of the overall architecture of higher education in Europe:
- European directives setting out specific rules for the preparation of, and access to certain regulated professions;
- structure of the curricula leading to these professions in the European Union.
Within the framework as set out above, this paper will try
- to map main areas of convergence and divergence in the structure of the various systems and
sub-systems of higher education in Europe,
- to identify significant trends in Europe and the global environment which may have an effect on these structures,
- and to indicate possible ways towards greater convergence and effectiveness in the future.
I. HIGHER EDUCATION STRUCTURES: HOW CONVERGENT ARE THEY ?
* Even more systems than countries in Europe
One of the key conclusions coming out of the survey carried out by Jette Kirstein (cf Part II of this document: Information on Learning Structures in Higher Education in the EU/EEA Countries) as well as of other sources is that the overall picture of studies, curricula and degrees is indeed extremely complex and varied, as a consequence of major differences in such key factors as: - type, breadth and duration of secondary education, with obvious consequences concerning age and preparation for further studies;
- the existence or not of sub-systems of higher education, their respective role and size and the relationship between them, in particular possibilities to transfer from one to the other; - access to higher education (from open choice to various forms of selection and numerus clausus
in all or some sectors);
- study fees (from gratuity to differential or generalised systems of tuition fee); - organisation of studies in terms of calendar (from annual courses to block modules), choice (varying from set curricula to nearly free choice), frequency and type of examinations (continuous examinations, final exams per credit, or only block examination after several semesters of study);
- and of course, the structure, duration, number and type of degrees that can be earned.
A major conclusion is that comparisons between degrees and degree structure made within such an environment can only be meaningful within certain limits. They become irrelevant if the various factors shaping their existence in a given national system are ignored. In the pages that follow, many comparisons will nonetheless be made, always with this fundamental remark in mind, even though it will not be repeated.
Whether officially unitary or binary, the architecture of national systems can be extremely complex. Within a single country there can be up to 100 different academic qualifications and as many different curricula linked by a variety of “bridges”. It is important to point out in this
respect that a potential European framework of qualifications cannot be less complicated than the most complicated of the national systems included in it.
* No convergence towards a strict “3-5-8” model
The Sorbonne Declaration recommends that studies should be organised in an undergraduate cycle leading to a first qualification and a graduate cycle leading to a master or doctoral degree, but it does not provide an indication on the duration of these cycles. An extensive debate has nonetheless taken place about this issue, based on the assertion in the Attali report to the French government about the existence (or emergence) of a (single) European model of higher education based on a sequence of studies and degrees of 3-5-8 years. A model strictly following this pattern does not exist.
There is little convergence towards a first degree after 3 years.
No one country in Europe has an across-the-board system of 3-year first degrees in all sectors of higher education or all disciplines.
In the UK, while most bachelor degrees indeed take 3 years to complete, there are many which take longer (typically 4 years), especially (but not only) courses involving a period of work-based learning (sandwich model) or integrated study abroad (e.g. in modern languages). Nearly all degrees can be classified as “honours” or “ordinary” degrees; the difference is neither in duration nor usually in a significantly different profile of the curriculum; honours degrees include a thesis and can only be achieved with certain grades (as opposed to a simple pass/fail system). In some fields such as engineering, there are 4-year curricula leading to a first (undergraduate) degree called a master (M.Eng). In Scotland, the first degree normally takes 4 years to complete and is usually called a bachelor degree (but in some cases, a master degree).
In Denmark and Finland where they were introduced in 1988 and 1994 respectively, bachelor courses last 3 years but do not exist in all fields. In other countries with bachelor degrees, their duration also varies between 3 and 4 years, e.g. in Ireland, Malta, Iceland, as well as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Where bachelor studies are based on a credit system, students may influence the duration of their studies and finish in slightly less time than the normal duration of the curriculum, or extend their
studies part-time over a much longer period. The actual length of the programme is then best expressed not in years or semesters, but in the number of credits that need to be acquired. With the development of part-time studies and lifelong learning, this is bound to become more prominent in the debate about the structure of qualifications at national and European level.
As can be seen from the tables prepared by Jette Kirstein there are numerous study programmes, both at universities and at other institutions of higher education, leading to a first degree after 4 years. This is also the case in many countries not included in the tables, e.g. in Romania and Bulgaria and for most Licences in Switzerland.
A very obvious phenomenon is that the duration of first degree studies (whether leading to a bachelor or not) varies significantly in many countries depending on the discipline (not mentioning medical studies which take longer everywhere), e.g. in Sweden, the Netherlands or Germany. Engineering, law or teacher training studies tend to be different from other disciplines. Even in systems where bachelor degrees have been introduced in other topics, certain curricula in engineering and technology lead straight to a master degree (e.g. in Denmark, Finland, UK).
Moreover, it should be remembered that in most countries (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, France, Greece and several others) there are huge differences between the official and the real duration of studies, with many students taking up to 7 years to complete a 4 or 5-year curriculum; comparisons based on the official duration of degrees and a possible alignment of systems on this basis would be meaningless if they were not combined with measures aimed at reducing the real duration to