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December 06, 2005

Selling Out Students? The EU's plans for the "harmonisation" of higher education

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - examines the EU's proposals for the "harmonisation" of higher education throughout the European Union by 2010. Prof. Black argues that these proposals are bad for students.

The positive direction of higher education policy is in danger of being jeopardised at the European level. Britain is part of what is known as the Bologna "Process", an inter-governmental initiative designed to establish a European standard in higher education by 2010. This is designed to ensure "harmonisation", in other words an imposed standardisation that bears little reference to the needs and problems of consumers (students) and/or suppliers (teachers), and, instead, is driven by regulators.

The Process is designed to produce standardisation in both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. For example, the number of hours in a "standard" undergraduate year are to be standardised, as are the minimum number of years of study necessary as part of a Masters level course, while there will be a drive to ensure that students who wish to study for a doctorate first hold a Masters level qualification.

This may all sound reasonable, but it cuts across the recent thrust of policy with its encouragement of responsiveness to "purchasers" (students paying fees), as well as the more general value, in a consumerist system, of offering differing "products" or types of courses, for particular constituencies.

For example, the classic postgraduate of the past was the would-be scholar, and that interest is accentuated by emphasis on postgraduate work as a "training". This, however, ignores an important group, the retired, who may wish to do research but do not see this as a training. The entire provision of higher education, indeed, would benefit from flexibility as institutions are encouraged to provide different services and at different costs.

A European-model is also a mistake because many of the European higher education systems are weak providers of poor quality services that pay more attention to political direction (and patronage) than the needs of students. This is certainly true of the French, German and Italian systems. Instead, the model for Britain is the very varied provision on offer in the USA. This is also a matter of commercial need. British universities depend for their income in part on providing services to foreign students, and this is also a valuable resource for the British economy. In this market, Britain is in competition with the USA in particular, but also, for example, with Australia.

To be forced to accept European regulation along the lines of the Bologna process, which currently offers proposals very different from British practice, would be a serious mistake. Yet again, distinctive, established and successful aspects of British society and public culture are under threat from Euro-convergence, and, yet again, the government has failed the public.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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We are told to celebrate diversity but the EU's main occupation is destroying it and replacing it with a dull uniformity. When dull uniformity is achieved the EU's bureaucrats will tell us it is not desirable and draw millons in wages while they reverse their work. This process will go on forever as working for the EU is a lucrative end in itself, not a means of doing anything useful for those who pay for it.

Posted by: simon at December 6, 2005 05:23 PM
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Perhaps if the French and German university sectors are so weak and unresponsive to business then Jeremy Black can find some other explanation for the high productivity of graduates from those countries.

Posted by: Tubby Isaacs at December 6, 2005 10:23 PM
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