In Europe, Skeptics of New 3-Year Degrees Abound

Academics and students question the value of shorter higher-education cycles and the motivations driving this Continental shift

Joerg Koch, AFP, for the Chronicle

Julian Dieler chose to pursue a five-year undergraduate degree at Ludwig Maximilians U., in Munich, even though Europe is moving toward three-year degrees. Employers, he believes, are unfamiliar with the new degrees and might favor job applicants with the old ones.
June 11, 2009

Julian Dieler just finished his second year studying for an undergraduate degree in economics at Ludwig Maximilians University here. The economics department is well-regarded, but Mr. Dieler chose to study here not because of the university's national renown or its location in the heart of one of Germany's most affluent and picturesque cities.

Instead, he selected Ludwig Maximilians because it still offered the five-year undergraduate diploma, a degree that is being phased out as Europe moves toward a three-year degree system in a harmonization of higher-education systems known as the Bologna Process.

"Many of the other universities had already changed to Bologna degrees," he says.

Mr. Dieler's preference for an undergraduate degree program that has been deemed anachronistic is just one indication that, despite its lofty aims and real accomplishments, the Bologna Process has not yet won full acceptance.

One of the original motivations behind Bologna was to enhance the educational experience of students, but some critics say that the new degree cycles instead shortchange them.

The harshest opponents charge that students are being rushed through their studies to obtain degrees whose value is still not fully understood or accepted in their own countries.

They believe the endeavor has been co-opted by governments and used as an excuse to impose controversial reforms, including cost decreases and tuition increases.

"I think the most important factor for me was that I didn't know that much about the bachelor-master's system, and everything was kind of uncertain," Mr. Dieler says.

10 Years in the Making

In June 1999, the education ministers of 29 European countries signed the Bologna Declaration, pledging to work toward the creation of a European Higher Education Area. The landmark declaration was short on specifics, but its aims included creating a system of comparable degrees, based on a two-degree cycle with an undergraduate degree lasting a minimum of three years.

For some countries, the changes that resulted from these relatively innocuous-sounding goals would entail nothing less than a complete transformation of their higher-education systems.

Degree programs varied widely in duration and rigor across Europe, with undergraduate degrees ranging from three years in England to more than five years in many Continental universities, in particular those modeled on the German system.

In Germany, most universities had for more than a century awarded the Diplom and the Magister as undergraduate degrees —the former mainly for subjects in the natural sciences and engineering, economics, and social sciences, the latter mainly for the arts and humanities and some social sciences. The Staats examen, or state exam, has also long been awarded as a first degree in fields in which students work in state-licensed professions, like law, pharmacy, and medicine, and many of these fields remain on the old system. The duration of study for a first degree was roughly five years but was not fixed, helping to foster an international stereotype of German students lingering indefinitely in tuition-free universities.

Dropout rates averaged about 50 percent and reached more than 75 percent in some programs.

The vagueness of the initial declaration eventually gave way to concrete policies, as the growing number of participating nations —there are now 46 —grappled with how to achieve their aims.

All of the Bologna signatories have pledged to achieve landmark milestones in the completion of the process by next year. This includes introducing a three-degree cycle of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, setting quality-assurance standards, and ensuring that countries recognize one another's degrees, giving similar weight to programs across borders.

A report presented at the biannual summit of Bologna education ministers in April underscored the sweeping transformations that have been put in place throughout Europe over the past decade. The report found that at least 90 percent of all students in 31 countries are enrolled in Bologna-compliant bachelor's and master's degree programs.

Just one country —Russia, which joined Bologna in 2003 —had less than 25 percent of students enrolled in Bologna bachelor's and master's programs.

In some countries, the Bologna realignment has been relatively straightforward. Norway, for example, "has done things quietly and has made significant changes, and things have gone very smoothly," says David Crosier, a Bologna expert at Eurydice, the European Union's educational information network.

But many Bologna critics, especially among the faculty and students, remain skeptical of its merits, and elsewhere Bologna has faced a rockier path to acceptance.

Mr. Crosier contrasts the Norwegian experience with Germany, where the process has "not been quite so smooth."

'A Disaster'

More than 75 percent of German degree programs are now Bologna compliant, up from less than half just two years ago. By 2010, all German universities are required by law to make the transition to Bologna degrees, but some are doing so unwillingly.

Horst Hippler is president of the University of Karlsruhe, a leading technical university, and is also president of the TU9, a consortium of Germany's largest technical universities.

He concedes that Bologna "has worked out pretty well for some study programs." like social-science degrees that lacked strictly defined requirements. "But for already existing structured programs, like natural sciences and engineering, it is more or less a disaster," he says.

The new undergraduate degree is simply too short, Mr. Hippler says. The Bologna accreditation regimen of frequent exams creates additional pressures.

"Students in physics and engineering say this is not a real study program, it's more like going to school," he says. "They say there is no time to think, to see relations between real fields."

Professors also complain that the new degree cycle limits what they can achieve.

"They say they cannot form an engineer with the same profile that we had before," Mr. Hippler says.

In Germany, the Bologna Process is being blamed for placing students under increased psychological pressure, as they rush to finish their degrees within the constraints of the new three-year undergraduate cycle.

A study published last year by one of the largest German health-insurance funds and the University of Bielefeld found growing levels of stress and depression among university students, attributable in part to the new shorter degree cycles.

Mobility, one of the express aims of the creation of the European Higher Education Area, has been another casualty of the shorter degree times.

Mr. Hippler says that Karlsruhe students used to study abroad quite a bit. But now, the shorter degree times and constant exams create powerful disincentives for students worried that they will fall behind by taking time away from their home institutions.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), a national agency that supports international educational cooperation, has announced a program of four-year undergraduate degrees that will include a year of study abroad.

The new program, which will be introduced next year, incorporates elements of the longer pre-Bologna degrees that were the norm in Germany. It is designed to foster mobility with a special focus on trans-Atlantic cooperation, since the courses "will combine very smoothly with American undergraduate programs," said Christiane Schmeken, the DAAD official who is overseeing the new program, by e-mail.

Commercialization Concerns

In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the Bologna decade has coincided with a period of intense national soul-searching about who should pay for higher education. Universities in Europe were historically free, their costs underwritten by the higher tax burdens that Europeans pay compared with Americans. In the past decade, that model has shifted. A growing number of countries, including Germany, have begun to impose or have raised existing tuition fees.

Chris F.G. Lorenz, a professor of history at the Free University of Amsterdam and a longtime critic of Bologna, argues that the process is being used as an excuse by governments intent simply on trimming higher-education budgets.

In the Netherlands, for example, he says, the amount of money spent by the state per student is now around 60 percent of what it was during the 1980s.

"What all governments are doing is cutting down on costs, and this is being marketed as an improvement of quality, of efficiency," Mr. Lorenz says.

Universities are under pressure to churn out students in increasingly short periods of time, compromising institutional autonomy and driving down academic standards in the process, he argues.

As student numbers rise, faculty-student ratios decrease, and output criteria are redefined, professors like Mr. Lorenz face growing pressures.

"The majority of academics are pretty unhappy," he says, and a growing number like him are writing critically about Bologna.

But his peers are unlikely to channel their discontent into concerted opposition.

"Academics have a very individualistic mind-set," he says.

In recent years, students in France, Germany, Greece, and Spain have all mounted protests against what they fear is the growing commercialization of higher education. For many, Bologna is seen as a proxy for this development.

Inclined to view any conflation of education and economics as an unacceptable, Anglo-Saxon style imposition of market forces on the ivory towers of academe, students have been especially receptive to the notion that Bologna poses a fundamental threat to certain fundamental European values.

The focus on streamlining degree cycles with an eye to graduate employability has been viewed as a dangerous step toward the commercialization of Europe's public universities. The additional step, in effect in Spain, for example, of allowing companies to actually underwrite specific degree programs is seen as evidence of this trend.

Wary Employers

Mr. Lorenz says that Bologna has encountered so much resistance in countries with university systems based on Germany's because it represents the demise of the classical German model of higher education, developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by Wilhelm von Humboldt.

"The Humboldt model is the freedom of the professors to teach what they deem the best and to research what they deem the best. It's the idea of academic professional autonomy," says Mr. Lorenz. "All this Bologna stuff means that the Anglo-Saxon model comes out as the best, and means that von Humboldt is outdated and belongs to history. Quite a few Germans are not fond of this idea."

Mr. Dieler, the Munich student, says employers are wary of the newer, shorter degrees, which they assume mean less qualified graduates.

"The problem is that the people who employ students, they don't know much about the new degrees," he says. "So I think when they have a choice between an applicant who did the Diplom and one who did the new Bologna degree, I think there could be advantages for the guy with the old degree."

The April Bologna report acknowledged that there is a wide range of reactions among employers.

"It appears that the acceptability of bachelor degrees in the labor market can depend as much on the established custom and practice of different countries as on the effective implementation of the Bologna reforms," it said.

Mr. Hippler, of the University of Karlsruhe, says he has seen these mixed reactions among employers.

"If you ask personnel management, they think it is always good if we get them very young —big companies have their own educational programs" and are happy to train malleable young workers, he says. "For medium- and small-sized enterprises, is very difficult to form employees, and they would prefer fully educated engineers."

But even Mr. Hippler recognizes that "there is no real going back. The question is, how do you really do it?"

Until that question is answered, students like Mr. Dieler will remain skeptics. "I think the idea behind the Bologna Process, that Europe should become closer and that students should do exchanges more easily —these are good ideas," he says. "But at the time of transition, it is hard for students to live with these organizational problems."