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What is "Bologna"?

The Bologna process is an inter-governmental process currently involving 46 nations across Europe. The signatory countries are seeking to create a European HE Area, where things are broadly comparable, and where we speak enough of a common language that students and graduates can move around the Area easily, and people in other countries (employers, HEIs recruiting postgrads etc) can understand other countries' qualifications. One of the ways this is being done is in the structure of university study. Broadly, we (as a continent) are developing a three-cycle system of HE, where the first cycle is the Bachelors degree, the second cycle is the Masters, and the third cycle is the Doctorate. Very broadly, the first cycle is seen as relatively general, the second is often more professionally oriented, the third is about research. This has made things relatively straightforward for the UK, as we already had this sort of three-cycle system before Bologna started.

It used to be quite different in different countries. For example, Russia had 5-year degrees which combined general and subject-specific study with highly specific professional training - in effect the first and second cycles combined. You used to graduate with a named specialisation, which in effect told the Soviet central planners what job you could do - so you might do a degree in French and German with a specialisation in maybe Translation, or Teaching Languages, or Literary Criticism and Editing - and you would be able to get a job as a translator, or a teacher, or in publishing, but with very little flexibility. They are now moving towards a three-year Bachelors (in, say, French and German) and second-cycle professional qualifications (a PGCE, or a Masters in Lit Crit or whatever). This sort of change in systems is quite widespread around Europe.

The UK (as a whole and each of its constituent parts) is fully committed to the Bologna process. The UK was one of the initial signatories to the process and has been making good progress across all the "action lines" to implement it.

Many of the changes are being made at a national level. QAA will be going through a process to certify that the English national credit framework complies with Bologna norms, for example. At Warwick, we have made some minor alterations to the rules around intergrated Masters degrees to ensure they are as "Bologna-compliant" as they can be. We are considering how best to introduced the Diploma Supplement, which incorporates information currently contained in a degree transcript into a document which sets a student's course in the national context.

One of the big ongoing discussions in the Bologna process is around "learning outcomes" versus "time served" - and this is the crux of current debates across Europe on the value and validity of UK one-year Masters degrees. We in the UK are now well used to describing education in terms of learning outcomes. (By the end of this course you will be able to ...) We use different words to describe different levels (so level C = describe, level I = analyse, level H = critically analyse, level M = systematically and critically analyse, level D = think up something new for others to describe and analyse), and this is how we know that a course is at a particular level. There are different traditions elsewhere, and the most common other one is that you know what level a course is at by how long you have to study to finish it. So if students typically do this course straight after they leave school and it takes three years it's first cycle, whereas this other course, which students typically do in their fourth and fifth years of HE, is a second-cycle (ie Masters) course. The problem comes where the two collide: some people think that there's no way you can get a full Masters degree only four years after you leave school, because they know it takes at least five years, while we say the length of time doesn't matter, just look at what they can do.

One of the places this battle is played out is in credit weightings. We know what a UK credit is - notional student effort of 10 hours. You may have heard of the Europe-wide credit system, ECTS (European Credit Transfer System, designed by the European Commission). The UK asserts that 2 UK credits are equivalent to 1 ECTS credits, which normally works fine. A full-time UK HE year is 120 UK credits, a normal full-time European HE year is 60 ECTS credits, everyone's happy. Except that some countries set down in law what an ECTS credit is worth - and they don't always hit on the same amount as each other, let alone equivalence with UK practice. So Austria has legislated to say that 1 ECTS credit comes from 26 hours of student effort, while Demark has a law that says it's 29 hours of student effort. The whole thing is inconsistent and imprecise, to say the least.

The other relevant complication is the full-year Masters course that we have - 180 UK credits ought to be worth 90 ECTS credits for a 12-month Masters. But here's the rub - a sizeable contingent of our fellow nations think that no student can achieve more than 75 ECTS credits in an academic year. Whether this is because all students must have July, August and September free to lie on beach or gather in the harvest, or because 75 ECTS credits at 29 hours each is already over 40 hours a week, I don't know. But it does make some people in Europe suspicious of our Masters degrees - they're not long enough, is what they think.