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					    A Harmonised European Higher Education System – Fact or Fiction
                                                M. Allan
                                Faculty of Science and Technology
                       Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK, G4 0BA.

                                        e-mail –

Abstract This paper examines trends in European Higher Education particularly in the area of
harmonising quality and standards across Europe. It examines these trends in the context of their
influence on the challenges facing the European Higher Education sector as outlined in the Bologna
Declaration in developing a world-class European Higher Education system. In particular the
response of the UK to this initiative is examined in detail as an exemplar of a national response to
these European aspirations. The paper concludes that although significant progress has been made
particularly at national and institutional level a further overarching effort at European level is
required to ensure that the objective of harmony within the context of quality and transparency is
realised. It also concludes that significant developments in the UK should be observed by the sector in
general to inform European wide debate and further development.

Keywords: European Quality Assurance, Trends in Higher Education, Bologna and beyond.


This paper examines trends in European Higher Education particularly in the area of harmonising
quality and standards across Europe. It examines these trends in the context of their influence on the
challenges facing the European HE sector as outlined in the Bologna Declaration in developing a
world-class European HE system. In particular the response of the UK to this initiative is examined in
detail as an exemplar of a national response to these European aspirations. The paper concludes with
an assessment of the progress made to-date and the challenges remaining to be overcome to achieve


There is evidence of a significant and increasing demand for the global mobility of both workforce
and work location. Business organisations wish the flexibility to either site business units were the
workforce expertise is located or alternatively site elsewhere (for other reasons) and attract the
workforce to this location. This in turn places a significant demand on the providers of education to
satisfy this global need i.e. to provide education in locations deficient in this respect and to educate to
a standard that facilitates or at least does not hinder mobility of employees. In Europe the demand
could perhaps be partly satisfied by the development of a harmonised higher education (HE) system.

However this demand has to be placed in the context of a number of other issues impacting on Higher
Education (HE) today particularly within Europe. These are outlined in the following sections as
Trends in Higher Education, The Bologna Declaration (European Perspective) and the UK

Trends in Higher Education

Market Opportunities

There are a number of regions which have an under-developed HE infrastructure. This represents a
market opportunity for European HE providers through franchise, collaboration and distance learning
mechanisms. There is a trend of an increasing number of students seeking a foreign degree
particularly at Masters level. The USA and Australia are currently big players in this arena which is
potentially at the expense of European providers [1]. Demographic trends are pointing to an increase
in demand from mature students [2] and the corresponding attraction of lifelong learning opportunities
(again Masters programmes are proving to be particularly attractive in this respect).

Technology and Flexible Learning

Technology (ICT) continues to play an important role in enhancing the quality of delivery and
learning opportunities as well as enabling distance-based provision. This coupled with the move
towards modular schemes incorporating credit and accumulation has at least provided a structure for
more flexible learning opportunities together with the potential for realising comparability between
various schemes.

Other Trends

Over the last 15 years HE has seen a move from an ‘elite’ system to mass participation [3]. This has
been accompanied by funding models which has required the sector to be more efficient [3,4]. A
tension also exists in some funding models as HE institutions seek funding from both private and
public sources.

The level of competition between providers within countries has, in many cases, increased. This
together with a move towards more autonomy within the HE sector has encouraged and supported
diversification in provision (also driven by need to respond to challenges such as wider access,
lifelong learning, social inclusion etc). Although diversification is generally viewed as a healthy
characteristic it is also true that this can create a tension when wishing to define/measure equivalence
in the standards and quality of education within countries and between countries.

The above trends, developments and needs have been recognised by many countries within Europe
who have responded by collectively developing and agreeing actions to promote European HE
worldwide. This led to the Bologna Declaration, signed in 1999 by 29 European countries [5]. This
declaration provides the centre-piece to address the following:-

   Loss of market share (primarily to USA)
   Growth in demand for transnational education
   Need to improve the employability and mobility of European Citizens

One of the central challenges is for Bologna to realise its objectives through the development of a
comparable European HE Quality Assurance (QA) System. Thus Bologna is extremely significant as
a reference point for realising the objective of developing a world-class European Higher Education
system. In view of this Bologna is considered in more detail below.

The Bologna Declaration

Summary of key aspects of Bologna Declaration [5]

The Bologna declaration affirms support to the general principles laid down in the Sorbonne
declaration (25th May 1998). The signatories agreed to engage in coordinating their policies to reach
in the short term, and in any case within the first decade of the first millennium, the following
objectives, which they consider to be of primary relevance in order to establish the European area of
higher education and to promote the European system of higher education world-wide:

       Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, also through the
        implementation of the Diploma Supplement, in order to promote European citizens’
        employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system.
        Adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate.
         Access to the second cycle shall require successful completion of first cycle studies, lasting a
         minimum of three years. The degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the
         European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. The second cycle should lead
         to the master and/or doctorate degree as in many European countries.
        Establishment of the system of credits – such as ECTS system – as a proper means of
         promoting the most widespread student mobility. Credits could also be acquired in non-higher
         education contexts, including lifelong learning, provided they are recognised by receiving
         Universities concerned.
        Promotion of mobility by overcoming obstacles to the effective exercise of free movement
         with particular attention to:
               for students, access to study and training opportunities and to related services
               for teachers, researches and administrative staff, recognition and valorisation of
                  periods spent in European context researching, teaching and training, without
                  prejudicing their statutory rights.
        Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance with a view to develop comparable
         criteria and methodologies
        Promotion of the necessary European dimensions in higher education, particularly with
         regards to curricular development, inter-institutional co-operation, mobility schemes and
         integrated programmes of study, training and research.

Comparability of the HE sector across Europe is a major challenge to Bologna. It is stressed this is to
be achieved within the context of the principle of subsidiarity as outlined by the Masstricht Treaty [6].
This admirable principle has however perhaps hindered the development of a harmonised system as it
has avoided the top-down approach in favour of initiatives taken at national level.

A survey of degrees across Europe pre-Bologna [7] uncovered a jungle of degrees with very little
convergence except in the area of Masters. In fact, comparability/compatibility is viewed as a problem
within some national systems (e.g. within UK – refer to next section) so it is not surprising that the
problem of convergence across Europe is further compounded. Thus in many cases solving national
problems of comparability will take priority although there is no reason why this could not be
resolved within a European context. However, there may be hidden agendas resisting developing
European comparability. This might in opening up the market place leave some HE institutions
exposed to a level of open competition they would be uncomfortable with [8].

Bologna has proposed three key mechanisms to move towards the goal of a harmonised European HE

1.       A broad framework comprising 2 main reference qualifications.
         - 3/4 year Bachelors Degree (instead of long first degrees)
         - 5 year Masters Degree (postgraduate in UK)
2.       Utilisation of a credit and accumulation scheme regulated to embed personal/cultural aspects
         and generic skills for employability.
3.       Involve employers/professional bodies in the specification of programmes – for employability
         across Europe.

The key over-arching aspects within which the above is required to be developed are: -

         -   Diversity,
         -   Quality, and
         -   Transparency
What are the implications of this on Quality Assurance and Recognition?

Some progress has been made on the move towards the framework suggested e.g. Germany,
Denmark, Finland – degree/masters structure and the UK Qualifications Framework (which is
outlined in the next section). There is also perhaps a possible tension between the drivers of the
European framework. On one hand the European driver is one of transparency and comparability on
the other (national context) the driver is primarily one of enabling accountability and quality
improvement. However, there has been some progress in terms of mutual recognition of national QA
systems e.g. Germany, UK, Flanders and in the accreditation of Business Schools through the
European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS). This bottom-up approach taken by HE institutions
and governments, however, is in danger of failing unless the European context is kept alive and some
level of co-ordination is provided by a ‘European Body’. There is therefore still a question over the
need for a formal European recognition/accreditation scheme [9] – but for now the bottom-up
approach appears to be favoured and perhaps this is reasonable provided it is evaluated for
effectiveness against the aims of Bologna. Those institutions/countries who do not respond fully to the
Bologna initiative are likely in the long term to find themselves loosing market share.

In parallel with the above, national professional bodies have in some cases networked to agree on a
mutual acceptance/recognition of professional qualifications. Some have run into difficulties with, for
example, diverging objectives such as recognition of individuals in one case and accreditation of
programmes in others (Washington Accord [10]). This mechanism will of course only provide a
mechanism for the recognition of professional qualifications (including the academic dimension) and
does not resolve the recognition of non-professional programmes e.g. history with language.

It terms of recognition or acceptance of a qualification there have been a number of European
initiatives and directives in this respect. Perhaps the most important is the principle established within
the ‘General Directives’ (89/48EEC of 1988 and 92/51 of 1992) which puts the burden of proof on the
receiving country to establish substantial differences in an individuals profile and hence fitness to take
up work in a particular area. However, although this directive is well meaning its practical application
is often over beurocratic and hence impractical apart from proving test cases and hence setting
precedents. There is however a network of national recognition centres which can assist individuals in
establishing recognition/acceptance conditions. These groups do not appear to report in a structured
way to the Commission and therefore the scope and effectiveness of their activity is difficult to judge.
It would also appear that there is very little formal contact between the centres and national QA
agencies. This can lead to them becoming ineffective due to lack of knowledge of latest developments
in, for example, national qualifications frameworks. If the transparency objectives of Bologna were
fully realised there would be no need for these centres – employers and professional bodies could take
over these roles directly.

A significant responsibility is placed on national bodies within Bologna to realise its objectives – the
much referred to bottom-up approach. The extent to which national arrangements have responded to
or in fact even recognised Bologna is examined below in the context of the UK.

The UK perspective

Recent developments in the quality assurance arena within the UK HE sector has been driven by three
national quality assurance initiatives – the Graduate Studies Programme (GSP), the National
Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (NCIHE) and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher
Education (QAAHE). This is against the backcloth in the UK of: -

   in 1963 a 6% participation in HE (easier to quality assure, fewer
    students/programmes/universities), today a 30% participation to feed the perceived needs of
    industry/commerce ( in excess of 40% in Scotland) – impact on quality ?
   decline in funding in real terms;
   public accountability and value for money;
   market focus – e.g. resources grow at a slower rate than participation;
   in 1992 unified sector with former ‘polytechnics’ becoming universities.

The final reports stemming from the GSP and the NCIHE were published in 1997. Both reports were
critical of the HE system within the UK and raised three key issues [11]: -

   There was significant lack of comparability of standards across the UK.
   The present system lacked clarity in the way awards, outcomes and standards were expressed –
    greater explicitness is required.
   The current process of assessment (for awards) was criticised as not being completely reliable
    even with the current system of External Examining.

It is interesting to note the parallels in the above with what has already been outlined within a
European context – i.e. issues of standards, comparability, transparency etc. However, the accusation
of falling standards within the UK HE sector, primarily due to the move to mass participation, has
never been conclusively proven. Indeed, a recent survey of UK degree results indicates that there is no
significant overall national trend over the period 1994 to 1999, and local variations at institutional
level could well be explained by a range of factors (entry standards, teaching standards, examination
system etc) [12].

Resulting from the above a consultation process was initiated which considered the proposals
emerging from the GSP and the NCIHE. This consultation process was managed by the newly formed
QAAHE on behalf of the funding bodies (Higher Education Funding Council - HEFC). The following
framework emerged [13]: -


To regulate standards, external/national reference points are proposed: -

   National Subject Benchmarks (general expectations about the standards for the award of
    qualifications at a given level and articulate the attributes and capabilities that those possessing
    such qualifications should be able to demonstrate - in a particular subject area – 42 subject areas
    are proposed)
   National Qualifications Framework (outcomes based structure based on consistent qualification
    descriptors and credits – designed to meet expectations of Bologna Declaration) – for example the
    honours degree in Scotland is defined as 480 credits obtained by progressing through 4 levels.
   National Codes of Practice – defines a comprehensive series of system-wide expectations
    covering matters relating to the management of academic quality and standards in higher
    education e.g. Section 2:Collaborative provision – July 1999.

The consultation on subject benchmarking was met with a near neutral response from the HE sector
with only 25% expressing support for the scheme. However, for the moment the QAAHE are still
aiming to complete the development of the 42 subject benchmarks as planned.

It should be stressed that the above does not constitute a national curriculum but it does question how
multi-disciplinary programmes might be referenced within this framework and thus creates a possible
tension with diversity. There is also still considerable debate over the level at which subject
benchmarks should be set, some argue they should be set at the threshold level for the honours degree
others say it should be set at the norm (which implies modal benchmarking) and hybrids of these have
also been proposed [11]. Modal benchmarking is seen as more valuable in that it should help drive
quality improvement rather that simply quality measurement. There is also a tension between the
notion of threshold and the honours classification system as currently operating in the UK. The value
of specifying subject-based outcomes as against simply generic outcomes has also been extensively
debated. There are clearly arguments for and against these two extremes and hopefully the use of the
subject benchmarks ‘on the ground’ will provide a resolution to this debate.


To help provide explicitness ‘Programme Specifications’ are to be developed. These specifications are
for teaching teams to set out: -

   the intended learning outcomes of the programme;
   the teaching and learning methods that enable learners to achieve these outcomes and the
    assessment methods used to demonstrate their achievement;
   the relationship of the programme and its study elements to the qualifications framework.

The stakeholders involved with programme specifications include students, prospective students and
employers. In addition they are intended as a useful vehicle to promote professional dialogue during
internal and external review and development activities. There has been some criticism of programme
specifications with regard to fit with multi-disciplinary degrees and other flexible degree structures as
well as practical difficulties with satisfying the demands of a wide stakeholder community with a
single document.

Resulting from the above developments the remit of the QAAHE was extended and now includes
quality assurance, public information, standards verification, maintenance of qualifications
framework, development of mandatory codes of practice and development of benchmark information.
This extensive list has been criticised by many as being too extensive to the extent of impinging on
the effectiveness of the organisation to deliver and of course the resultant demand placed on an
already stretched HE sector.

Academic Review within the UK

Stemming form the framework outlined above the QAAHE under contract from the funding councils
will institute a new academic review process (which started in Scotland in October 2000 and is due to
start in the remainder of the UK in October 2001). The mission of the QAAHE in this respect is to
promote public confidence that the quality of provision and standards of awards in higher education is
being safeguarded and enhanced.

The new review process involves two linked reviews – subject review and institutional review carried
out over a six-year cycle. The intention is that subject review – for example the engineering provision
within an institution – will target programme outcome standards and the quality of learning
opportunities and institutional review will target the institutional management of standards and
quality. The output of subject review will progressively inform institutional review and subsequent
subject reviews.

There has been much debate over the past year over the effectiveness of the new approach and in
particular the burden imposed on higher education institutions. Proposals of a ‘lighter touch’
dependant on a range of criteria have been muted but this has been met with objections from the HE
sector particularly in England and Wales. This was primarily because of a lack of confidence in the
proposed criteria to realise the ‘light touch’. A range of subject reviews have just been completed in
Scotland and although it is perhaps too early to provide meaningful feedback on the overall
effectiveness and value of the approach it is clear that the burden placed on units undergoing subject
review is extensive. Although, some would argue that the development of the self evaluation
document, central to the review process, should in any case be carried out internally to enable self
reflection and thus drive improvement. However, subject reviews were carried out even in cases were
recent accreditation by professional bodies had given a suite of programmes a glowing report – this
perhaps exemplifies the concern expressed in England and Wales with regard to the lighter touch.
There has been extensive debate within the HE sector in England since the announcement by the
Secretary of State in March 2001 which envisaged a reduction of 40% in the volume of subject-level
activity. This was primarily in response to the concerns outlined above relating to the effectiveness of
the new approach particularly in relation to the disproportionate burden placed on institutions. As an
outcome of this debate the QAA have announced that it is to delay the implementation of the original
review methodology and has proposed a revised approach which it believes will deliver the lighter
touch and reduce the burden on HE institutions whilst still fulfilling its contractual obligation to the
funding councils. The revised method in effect moves the audit of the quality and standards actually
achieved to an institutional forum and proposes criteria to vastly reduce the need for subject review
(e.g. historical record from TQA, professional body input etc.) [14].


There is evidence that the community has embraced the Bologna declaration primarily through the
implied bottom-up approach [15]. There are examples of action at national level to move towards the
2 stage qualifications framework outlined in Bologna. In particular the UK have made this explicit
within its recently published ‘Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education’ and in Scotland the
development of a credit and qualifications framework has a significant strand relating to European
developments. However, there is perhaps a need for greater transparency in the development of these
national frameworks so that coordination can be achieved at European level. There is therefore a
critical role for organisations such as the European Network of Quality Assurance in Higher
Education (ENQA) to lead an open dialogue in this area and through a coordinated effort establish a
common framework of reference and disseminate best practice [16]. Ministers, at a Bologna follow up
meeting in Prague [16], have reaffirmed the value of the bottom-up approach by continued emphasis
on the responsibilities of individual higher education institutions to design scenarios for the mutual
acceptance of evaluation and accreditation/certification mechanisms. The inclusion of the ‘European
Dimension’ within the curriculum has made progress, particularly through the collaborative activities
encouraged by SOCRATES. However, there is evidence that a culture of embedding the ‘European
Dimension’ within ‘standard’ curriculum design processes requires further development. The work of
national recognition organisations needs to be expanded to include a full dialogue with national
quality assurance agencies and professional bodies to ensure that obstacles blocking transparency,
recognition, acceptance and mobility are identified for further action.

The UK experience on benchmarking, one of the cornerstones to assure comparability, has exposed a
number of difficulties particularly in relation to threshold and norm referencing and the tension
between the definition of subject and generic skills. Those developing benchmarking arrangements in
Europe would benefit from observing and evaluating the UK system as it unfolds. The development
of programme specifications to make programme outcomes explicit to a wide audience is also a UK
development that has significant potential worthy of consideration at European level.

The need for an effective European quality assurance forum is essential if a common terminology is to
be developed and efforts are to be coordinated otherwise the bottom-up approach implied by Bologna
is in danger of leading to a fragmented system. However, some comfort may be taken from European
funded initiatives such as ‘Tuning Educational Structures in Europe’ which is a pilot project involving
70 universities aimed at addressing the harmonisation issue [17].

Bearing in mind the tendency in some quarters for self-interest at institutional and national level the
need to sustain European efforts as outlined above and to encourage dialogue is vital if Europe’s
aspirations to lead in higher education are to be realised.


[1]     Adams, T. & Brown, R. (1999): The international franchising of courses. EAIE Forum,
[2]    Eurostat Social Portrait of Europe : (1998)

[3]    Jobbins, D. (2001): Degree class expands, Times Higher (15 June), The Times Supplements
       Ltd., London, UK.

[4]    Maslen, G. (2001): Oz feels the strain of student rise, Times Higher (8 June), The Times
       Supplements Ltd., London, UK.

[5]    Bologna Declaration (1999): The European Higher Education Area. Joint Declaration of the
       European Ministers of Education Convened in Bologna at the 19th of June 1999.

[6]    Treaty on European Union (1992), Article 126, Maastricht.

[7]    Haug, G. (1999): Trends and Issues in Learning Structures in Higher Education in Europe.
       (Background report to Bologna Declaration []

[8]    Beverwijk, J. & van der Maat, L. (1999): Introducing the undergraduate-graduate structure:
       reforming, adding and renaming. Paper presented at the 21st EAIR Conference, Lund, August
       1999, University of Twente:CHEPS.

[9]    Christensen, B. & Plannthin, M., (1997): Quality Assessment at a Multi-National Level. Paper
       presented at the 19th Annual EAIR Forum, August 1997, Warwick, UK.

[10]   Washington Accord: Agreement on mutual recognition of engineering education
       accreditation processes, [refer:]

[11]   Armstrong, M. (1999): Historical and Contextual Perspectives on Benchmarking in Higher
       Education, Benchmarking and Threshold Standards in Higher Education, (pp. 7-34), Kogan
       Page, London, UK.

[12]   Bright, N., Hindmarsh, A. and Kingston, B. (2001): Measuring up the UK’s class system,
       Times Higher (22 June), The Times Supplements Ltd., London, UK.

[13]   Refer []

[14]   HEFC (2001): Quality assurance in higher education, Proposals for quality assurance in
       higher education, HEFC 01/45, July 2001 Consultation, [refer]

[15]   Campbell, C. & van der Wende, M. (2000): International Initiatives and Trends in Quality
       Assurance for European Higher Education, The European Network for Quality Assurance in
       Higher Education, Helsinki, Finland.

[16]   The Prague Communiqué (2001): Towards the European Education Area, Communiqué of
       the meeting of European Ministers in charge of Higher Education, 19th May, Prague, [refer:].

[17]   Nuthall, K. (2001): Brussels urges harmonisation of standards of standards, Times Higher
       (25 May), The Times Supplements Ltd., London, UK.