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Bologna Accord Challenges European Universities to Make Changes Beneath the Surface

Europe’s march toward agreement on a common model of higher education presents a significant opportunity for graduate business education; however, the Bologna Accord also poses several critical challenges for European institutions.

The Accord aims to simplify Europe’s complex educational qualifications and ensure that credentials granted by an institution in one country are comparable with those earned elsewhere. For this goal to be realized, institutions need to make fundamental changes behind the scenes that support the external convergence of degree titles and structures.

In the last edition of Graduate Management News, we considered the implications of the Bologna Accord for U.S. business schools. In this article, we delve into the opportunities and challenges the Accord represents for European institutions.

A Quick Recap of the Bologna Accord

Signed in 1999, the Bologna Accord outlined the steps European higher education needed to make to adopt a shared model of higher education. The primary aim was to increase competitiveness by increasing graduate mobility, both within and into the European zone. The reforms included—

  • creating a system of comparable and easily understandable degrees throughout Europe;
  • establishing a clear, uniform division between undergraduate and graduate studies; and
  • promoting student mobility among different fields of study, institutions, and nations.

To date, the Bologna Accord has been adopted by 40 European countries—nearly all of continental Europe. The agreement will simplify degree qualifications and nomenclatures; offer more educational choice and mobility; and bring many more potential applicants into the graduate management pipeline. We estimate that, by 2010, more than 2.4 million students will graduate annually with bachelor’s degrees. This influx of potential graduate program applicants represent a major opportunity for continental European graduate management education programs to give the market-dominating U.K. and U.S. programs a serious run for their money.

Introducing Bachelor’s Degrees to Europe

At its heart, the Bologna Accord introduces a break point to the traditional European long-cycle first degree, in which students study for five years, or often longer, to earn a qualification roughly comparable to the master’s degree in the Anglo-American system. Students in European countries where the Accord is in effect will now graduate with a bachelor’s degree after three or four years of study, and then have the option of either continuing in their studies for a master’s degree or directly entering employment. Some European countries, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, already have adopted the new system, which will be implemented across Europe by 2010.

Achieving convergence around a common model, however, is difficult to achieve, given the long history of unique national qualifications in Europe. Institutions face numerous challenges in such areas as program design, degree nomenclatures, and new methods of competition in an expanded market. The risks are high—institutions that do not live up to the challenges could find their very existence in jeopardy.

Consistent Degree Nomenclatures

Perhaps the most important challenge facing institutions competing in the post-Bologna environment is how to migrate smoothly and effectively to a system with distinct bachelor’s and master’s stages. To succeed, institutions must create self-sufficient, stand-alone programs at both levels to attract good candidates who could then graduate with skills valued by employers. Institutions that pay lip service to bachelor’s degrees by making them an inconsequential step toward a final master’s degree might inadvertently undermine the credibility of undergraduate degrees in the eyes of employers.

A second, and far more insidious, problem surrounds naming conventions. Consistency in nomenclature can confer immense benefits if each bachelor’s, master’s, or MBA degree is roughly equivalent. However, a common naming convention could end up making comparisons across national systems problematic if degrees that share the same names are fundamentally different.

To address the question of comparability in business education, Europe needs to ensure that traditional pre-experience graduate management degrees (e.g., those leading to a master of science, master of arts, or master of something else) are not positioned as being equivalent to the MBA. Although in Europe the MBA title is almost exclusively reserved for professional, post-experiential graduate management programs, there are some schools and countries that are including pre-experiential qualifications under the MBA moniker. It is essential that a clear differentiation between the MBA and other degrees be maintained.

Attracting Students

Once the challenge of establishing distinct bachelor’s and master’s degrees within a common nomenclature has been overcome, institutions will need to start marketing their courses to a mobile student population. Historically, the long first degree meant that once students were enrolled at an institution, they stayed for at least five years until they earned a single, advanced degree. Now schools will need to encourage their students to stay on and also find other students to replace bachelor’s degree holders who elect to leave.

Indeed, the Bologna Accord is poised to introduce an unprecedented era of competition to Europe’s educational system as schools compete for the best graduate students from beyond their national borders. In the Netherlands and Switzerland, for example, some master’s programs are already being delivered in English to appeal to an international student body, and institutions are implementing strategies to attract applicants from other countries. These developments highlight the growing trend toward offering programs in widely spoken languages as a mechanism to broaden the pool of potential applicants.

Student mobility is also leading to increased competition. Schools in the Netherlands and Switzerland that have sought to understand what motivates students have found that there is a close link between an institution’s prestige and its students’ tendency to stay on to earn a master’s degree. In addition, institutions with strong reputations can expect to attract students at the master’s level who “trade up” from the less prestigious institutions where they earned their bachelor’s credentials. The new freedom of choice for students will mean that lesser institutions will have to compete for a dwindling pool of student talent.

An Important Opportunity for Graduate Management Education

The Bologna Accord charts a bold new course for European higher education and will open more doors for graduate learning. Although it is unclear how various institutions will respond to the challenges posed by the Accord, it is evident that schools across Europe will need to become more market-oriented if they are to survive and thrive in the post-Bologna era.

Business schools are well placed to benefit from the changes in Europe’s educational system. They already embody many of the characteristics Bologna seeks to promote: comparability and compatibility across degrees, education with labor-market relevance, and a mobile staff and student body. As a result, business schools should be able to make key contributions to the development of a world-class educational system that promotes European competitiveness. In return, the MBA has the opportunity to become an integral part of national qualification frameworks across Europe—and formally take its place beside pre-experience business and management master’s degrees as a valuable, marketable credential.

—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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