Building A 'University of Europe'

The partisans of a united Europe like to hail its most famous successes, like the creation of a central bank, a single currency and a common market. For some reason, though, an achievement that is perhaps no less important gets almost no attention, at least outside Europe: the common university system. Begun only eight years ago, and it is largely complete. Who knew?

Not long ago, moving students and staff between Europe's largely state-controlled universities was next to impossible; U.K. admissions officers, for example, were baffled when confronted by Portuguese transcripts, which graded students on a 20-point scale. And the Portuguese were equally confused by what exactly differentiated a British first-class degree from an upper second. National funding systems across Europe discouraged mobility, rewarding institutions that retained students and providing no incentives to study away from home.

Now, finally, much of that is changing. Degrees have become much easier to translate, thanks to the introduction of a uniform academic transcript—the Diploma Supplement. And the length of time it takes to complete a bachelor's or master's degree is also being unified. The continent's students hoping to study abroad won't be the only beneficiaries. The better Europe gets at moving its own students and academic staff around—and the less idiosyncratic its famously eccentric schools become—the more competitive it will be on the global education market.

In this sense, the changes are well timed. Around the planet, more and more students are starting to act like picky global consumers. Europe has little choice but to make its academic menu as appealing and easy to read as possible. To that end, 45 nations have been working since 1999 through the so-called Bologna process to make comparing courses and transferring students and staff easier.

Already, the changes have produced a quiet revolution. A full 82 percent of European universities have ditched their old five- to six-year undergraduate programs, which tended to be expensive for both taxpayers and students. Teaching requirements on various subjects are also being aligned, and 75 percent of institutions now use a common system for bestowing and transferring academic credits.

The new European Higher Education Area (as the Bologna process is properly known) should have fully standardized its member states by 2010, as planned. That represents an extraordinary success for advocates of a unified Europe. Lesley Wilson, secretary-general of the European University Association, says the new system should entice more students to "travel across the wider European area," producing the kind of flexible, cosmopolitan grads whom employers are looking for and raising the overall competitiveness of Europe and its schools.

Of course, on a continent with so many languages and cultures, the process has been far from simple. Bologna promises to raise quality by imposing baseline controls; for their degrees to be recognized, universities must now meet minimum requirements on hours spent in the classroom and coursework submitted.

But comparing university quality is notoriously difficult, particularly across borders. Predictably, the speed and reliability of the process have lagged; the new system's credit-accumulation and -transfer program has even been abused in some places, according to a European University Association study released this year. And less than half of participating schools issue a Diploma Supplement to all graduating students (they're all supposed to). There seems to be little chance that the renegades will be brought into line. European officials have stressed that the Bologna process should be voluntary.

To be fair, the system has created awkward dilemmas for many universities, forcing them to choose between autonomy on one hand and Bologna's transparent accountability on the other. But in the end, market forces should prevail; each institution will ultimately get to decide for itself to what extent it wants to cooperate—and therefore compete.

Unsurprisingly, universities that could benefit most from the added legitimacy Bologna will confer—mainly those in Eastern Europe and Russia—have been eager to adjust. Even Australia has voiced interest in aligning with the Bologna model. But universities in Britain, which already have sterling reputations worldwide, have felt little incentive to change. Britain does not yet automatically give standardized transcripts to its graduates. This annoys Bologna advocates, who say students will be disadvantaged when seeking employment in mainland Europe.

Another problem is that the new rules leave considerable room for interpretation. Drummond Bone, president of London-based Universities UK, points out the confusion that remains even within Britain: in England, a three-year degree is called a bachelor's, whereas in Scotland it takes four years and is called a master's. "The point at the moment is that nobody is quite sure what levels the qualifications are, and they take an enormously varied time to get."

The Brits have also pushed back on substance, complaining that the establishment of a two-year norm for European master's programs will make Britain's one-year master's look lightweight by comparison. Government ministers and university heads also argue that Bologna draws too deeply on Continental ideas, measuring qualifications in terms of hours spent in tutorials and lecture halls (British universities rely much more heavily on exams and essays). And the Bologna commitments are proving expensive. Restructuring programs requires extra resources, as does building networks among universities and with the business community. At a time when state funding for tertiary education is falling, finding the extra cash won't be easy.

Still, few question that the process is essential if Europe hopes to attract more foreign students and their ever-more-attractive tuition payments. If things go according to plan, Europe should reap a big international harvest starting in 2010. While the big three—Britain, Germany and France—already attract a huge share (43 percent) of the world's international students, smaller European nations are hoping standardization will boost them in the league tables. Bacher Gottfried, head of the Bologna process in Austria, says the new system has "introduced a new quality culture for Austrian higher-education institutions," which should be a big lure.

Officials hope for a snowball effect: student mobility should spill over into new research and business collaborations, making the whole European economy more dynamic and efficient. In other words, if Bologna makes it easier for students to move around while learning—and to get better jobs after graduating abroad—then much of the continent should profit from it.