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The Bologna Accord: A European Revolution with Global Implications

The Europeans are coming! Are you ready?

The Bologna Accord, a sweeping educational reform planned for full implementation by 2010, is already influencing the European graduate management market, creating new degree distinctions, new potential applicants for graduate management programs, more options for students, and a new market for graduate management programs throughout Europe. But U.S. business schools need to be aware of and prepared for the reforms, as well, because soon the results will affect their applicant pools. How? Why? What is the Bologna Accord? Graduate Management News has the story.

What Is the Bologna Accord?

In June 1999, 29 European countries signed a document called the Bologna Declaration, agreeing to reform higher education to achieve the following aims:

  • create a system of comparable and understandable degrees throughout the European Union
  • establish a clear and standard division between undergraduate and graduate studies
  • promote student mobility among different fields of study, institutions, and nations
  • develop a quality-assurance process and governing body to ensure standard qualifications and quality throughout participating countries
  • define a European focus for higher education

Often called the Bologna Accord, the reform agreement has since been adopted by 11 more countries, bringing the total number of signatories to 40. With the exception of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, San Morino, and the Ukraine, all of Europe is on board. The agreement promises to simplify degree qualifications and nomenclatures, offer more educational choice and mobility to European students, and bring many more potential applicants into the graduate management pipeline. Together, the reforms represent an opportunity for Continental European graduate management education programs to challenge the more mature U.S. and U.K. programs’ market share.

Before the Accord, there was little uniformity in European higher education. Different countries’ universities awarded different degrees, and it was not always clear which degrees were equivalent to one other. These distinctions made it difficult for graduate program admissions offices and potential employers across borders to assess an applicant’s level of education without researching degree qualifications—an onerous task, given the wide variety of diplomas even within a single European nation.

The Bologna Accord clarifies the meaning of degrees by establishing a division between undergraduate and graduate study and introducing the “bachelor” and “master” framework to education in European countries that sign the agreement. It also defines standard degree requirements, a standard grading scale, a common transcript, and quality-assurance checks to ensure common practices and quality standards.

New European Grading Scale

Implementing the Accord will require fundamental administrative, infrastructure, and financial changes that will radically alter the face of European higher education and affect the education market on distant shores, as well.

What Does It All Mean?

New degree requirements and transcripts—in your applicant pool. Under the European Credit Accumulation and Transfer System (ECTS), a bachelor’s degree can be earned in three years, so business school admissions officers should be prepared to consider European three-year bachelor’s degrees as equivalent to American four-year undergraduate degrees. The European three-year degrees should, however, be considered distinct from the Indian BComm, which is not equivalent to a bachelor’s degree and which most often requires further study before the degree recipient is qualified to enroll in a graduate management program.

Business schools should also be prepared to receive and interpret the new Diploma Supplement that will be appended to degree transcripts from Bologna signatory countries starting this year.

More bachelor’s graduates, and consequently, more potential master’s students. The first and arguably most significant impact of the Bologna Accord will be that more European students will enter, and successfully complete, bachelor’s degrees, which would, in turn, create a large crop of potential graduate students. Bachelor’s graduates are estimated to number more than 2.4 million students per year by the year 2010, when the Bologna Accord is to be fully in effect.

Why so many new bachelor’s recipients? The Bologna Accord creates a shorter undergraduate degree, making it more likely that students will pursue and complete the degree. In continental Europe pre-Bologna, first degrees (roughly equivalent to an American bachelor’s plus master’s degree) were supposed to take 5 years to complete. In practice, though, the length of study was often considerably longer than 5 years because of students’ tendency to resit years and take a long time to write a final thesis—without which, many degrees could not be awarded. In Italy, first degrees took an average of 5.6 years to complete. In France and Germany, degrees were typically completed in 5.3 and 6 years, respectively. In Austria and Greece, a first degree took an average of 7.3 years to complete! 

The length of these first degrees was a deterrent from attempting them and a barrier to graduation. Of those that did enter higher education, on average, students in 5- to 6-year courses had a 17% higher dropout rate than students in 3- to 5-year courses of study. Shorter degrees will almost certainly encourage more students to earn a bachelor’s degree.

More bachelor’s graduates would then mean more potential master’s students. Some graduates will decide to continue directly to the master’s degree, and some, to enter the workforce, but even if they choose to go into the workforce, the shorter duration of the bachelor’s degree may mean that bachelor’s graduates will be more likely to return for more education, such as an MBA. Although choice at the end of bachelor studies may not be new for American students, for Europeans this is a fundamental shift.

Anticipating what students will actually do is difficult, and each European country appears to have its own ideas. Universities in countries where long first degrees were the dominant model anticipate that more than 80% of bachelor’s graduates will continue their studies directly. That would mean roughly 1.9 million master’s students across all signatory countries.

Meanwhile, evidence from more mature master’s degree markets, such as the U.K. and the United States, suggests that a far lower number of bachelor’s students will continue their studies immediately—roughly 20 to 25% of eligible bachelor’s grads, or 500,000 to 600,000 students.

More willingness to study abroad. The Bologna Accord will reduce the amount of government educational funds spent per student (shorter degrees are less expensive) and is also likely to shift some of the cost of higher education to the students themselves. Presented with this new reality, European students may well decide to spend their educational funds outside their home countries. This could mean that more European students will apply to schools in European countries other than their countries of citizenship. It may also mean that more European graduates will apply to master’s programs in the United States, seeking a more established MBA market.

The Bologna Accord may also influence U.S. bachelor’s grads to study in European master’s programs. Data from the IIE Open Doors 2004 report show that the number of U.S. students going abroad to study for business and management qualifications has been growing at an average of 10% per year since the 1993–94 academic year.  A well-developed, high quality European higher education system could be an attractive study destination not only for Americans, but for students from all over the world.

More competition for students. The uncertainties surrounding student behavior will be reflected in a very dynamic graduate education market in Europe over the next 10 years. Attempts to second-guess student behaviors are likely to lead to significant numbers of graduate management programs being created to meet anticipated demand.  If every degree-granting institution in Europe establishes three graduate management degrees, it is estimated that 12,000 programs will fight for students.

If there is an oversupply of programs in European higher education, those programs will need to attract students to fill the classrooms. Some countries are already eyeing their student targets and ramping up their marketing efforts. Germany, for example, is trying to attract students from the U.K., promising low costs, an excellent social life, and a low cost of living. Schools are also adopting English as the language of instruction, to maximize their attractiveness to a nondomestic student body. We can almost certainly anticipate more competition in the European market as a result of Bologna reforms.

Spreading the Word in Europe

The GMAC Bologna Project Task Force that has studied the Bologna Accord issued a report that details the possible implications of the Accord on the graduate management education market. The report also outlines the task force’s recommendations on how to implement the Accord reforms in a way that will benefit the graduate management education market and all its stakeholders. On 20 January, the task force held press conferences in Berlin, Paris, London, and Milan to announce the release of the report. To read the report and other information about the Bologna Accord, click here or visit the GMAC Bologna Task Force website at

Next Time, More on the European Impact

The concluding part of our discussion of the Bologna Accord can be found in the next issue of Graduate Management News. In part 2, we will delve deeper into the challenges, opportunities, and problems likely to be faced by European higher-education institutions as the Bologna reforms continue to gather momentum.

In the meantime, if you wish to know more about the Bologna Accord and its significance, please email

—Rebecca Loades

Rebecca Loades coordinated the GMAC Bologna Project Task Force and is a consultant to GMAC. She holds an MBA from the Rotterdam School of Management, the Netherlands.

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