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EHEA – outcomes of the 2012 Ministerial Conference and the Bologna Policy Forum

The month of April brought new crucial developments for European (and to an extent global) higher education, with the eight Bologna Process ministerial conference and the third Bologna Policy Forum. Ministerial delegations from the 47 member states of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) met in Bucharest, Romania, on 26 and 27 April to discuss the future of this space of higher education, as well as the immediate policy priorities for the next three years. On this occasion, the ministers of education of the 47 countries signed the Bucharest Communiqué, the sixth document of this sort in the history of the Bologna Process. In addition to the communiqué, the EHEA ministers also adopted the EHEA Mobility Strategy – Mobility for better learning, a document outlining their priorities in the field of international student and staff mobility.

Unsurprisingly, the five-page communiqué touches on all central action lines of the Bologna Process, from the social dimension in higher education, to quality assurance, employability, funding and governance, research, qualifications frameworks, and international mobility. In the specific field of student mobility, the policy document particularly stresses, as does the Mobility strategy, the principle of “balanced mobility”. In the language of the communiqué, the education ministers “…strive for open higher education systems and better balanced mobility in the EHEA. If mobility imbalances between EHEA countries are deemed unsustainable by at least one party, we encourage the countries involved to jointly seek a solution, in line with the EHEA Mobility Strategy.” Nevertheless, during the discussions several delegations also warned against the possible tensions between this principle and that of free movement of people, a fundamental European right that must not, under any circumstances, be breached.

The two most debated lines in the communiqué were, however, the specific reference to ministers’ commitment to strengthen “public funding” of higher education and the principle of “automatic recognition”. Regarding the first item, a number of countries led by the UK insisted that the emphasis should not be placed on public funding, and that the ministers should rather commit to increase funding of higher education in general, be it from public or other sources. The draft text of the communiqué was subsequently revised along these lines. The second aspect, the principle of “automatic recognition”, had been originally interpreted by many delegates as a commitment that by the next ministerial conference they will have to accomplish the full recognition of foreign degrees and qualifications. The proponent of this principle, the European Commission, explained however, that this is a long-term goal of the Bologna Process rather than an immediate objective. Ideally - the deputy director of DG EAC, Xavier Prats Monné explained - one day a Bachelor graduate from one EHEA country will automatically be able to work in another EHEA country, without being asked for additional evidence or examinations to prove their qualification. But that day need not be in there years’ time. The EHEA delegates consequently endorsed the text including the “automatic recognition” desideratum.

The communiqué also puts forward a number of concrete priorities for the 2012-2015 period, some that need to be pursued at the national, others at the European level. Amongst the latter is the plan to evaluate the implementation of the strategy EHEA in a Global Setting, adopted by education ministers at the London ministerial conference in 2007.

In line with tradition, the European delegations also met - within the framework of the Bologna Policy Forum (BPF) - with close to 25 non-EHEA ministerial counterparts and with non-EHEA stakeholder organisations. The BPF participants discussed common higher education challenges and possible courses of joint action, and finally issued a joint statement by the same name. The joint statement also announces an evaluation of the BPF that will be initiated immediately after the conference, in order to improve the format of this dialogue for future encounters.

In framework of the two events, several interesting publications were also presented. The most prominent of them - The European Higher Education Area 2012: Bologna Process Implementation Report – is the result of a joint effort by Eurydice, Eurostat, Eurostudent and the European Commission. The publication, after setting some important contextual parameters for the EHEA, outlines the state of implementation of the Bologna Process in the 47 member countries in 2012 in six main areas, namely degrees and qualifications, quality assurance, social dimension, effective outcomes and employability, lifelong learning, and mobility. One of the key messages of the report is that, while many of the member countries have met the formal requirements, it remains very challenging to accurately assess the impact of these measures. Another publication distributed during the conference was ESU’s Bologna with student eyes 2012, a report that largely criticizes a “lack of speed” in implementing Bologna reforms in the last two years. One of the most notable novelties of the 2012 Ministerial Conference was the inclusion, for the first time, of a student representative in most national delegations.

The next ministerial conference will take place in 2015 in Yerevan, Armenia, which is also the next country to take over the Bologna Secretariat.

Bucharest Communiqué Bologna Policy Forum Statement EHEA Mobility Strategy The European Higher Education Area 2012: Bologna Process Implementation Report Bologna with student eyes 2012