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What to Learn from Higher Education Reform in the EU / Professor of the Economics of Education; Research and Development Center for Higher Education, Hitotsubashi University; Yukari Matsuzuka

Since the Bologna Declaration, reform of higher education in the EU has increasingly received considerable attention from around the world. This is not only because schemes to reform European higher education have been steadily progressing, but also because the reform process has witnessed growing international influence, expanding from the EU states to Australia, Asia, and both North and South America. Clifford Adelman, a leading US scholar of higher education studies, even argues in The Bologna Process for US Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education (2009) that “the Bologna Process is the most far reaching and ambitious reform of higher education ever undertaken,” and should serve as a model for higher education around the worldi.

The purpose of the Bologna Declaration is not limited to just facilitating the movement of students or researchers within the EU sphere. It also seeks to enable the influx of human resources from outside the EU, while fashioning European institutions of higher education into leading intellectual centers. The keywords are “quality assurance” and “mobility” of students and researchers. In order to achieve this goal, numerous progressive strategies have been implemented. These include reforming credit systems like the ECTSii and Tuning Projectiii, reviewing the system of granting degrees, and expanding scholarship projects like the Erasmus Programme. These policies not only invigorated the movement of students among universities, but also contributed to the development of collaborative degree programmes, such as joint degrees and shared degrees. Moreover, in order to facilitate transferring between schools and continuing education, these plans are intertwined with the development of lifetime education, and ultimately aim to bring about the formation of a foundation for intellectual society.

In recent years, the Bologna Process has been expanding the scope of its activities outside of the EU as well. In particular, since the beginning in 2004 of the Erasmus Mundus Programme, which aims to promote intellectual exchange among graduate students in and outside of the EU, international cooperation among institutions of higher education in the EU has been rapidly advancing. Approximately 400 universities participated in this project for the five-year period from 2004 to 2008, during which the number of institutions offering master’s programmes grew to 103, and the number of students from outside of the EU reached approximately 3,000. In terms of scholarships, from 2008 to 2009 approximately 450 researchers and 2,000 students from outside the EU received awards.

As the mobility of human resources continues to advance, high-calibre students move to universities where they can receive a higher level of education, and after graduating settle in a society where their high-level educational achievements are recognized. Consequently, the concentration of minds occurs in such areas, which in turn contributes to economic development. While this phenomenon is not in itself new, a major difference from the established pattern is how a university’s “high quality” is now specifically defined in terms of the content and/or caliber of its education as well as its accomplishments. Furthermore, it is highly probable that this approach will spread internationally. In this context, there are two issues which a university must confront: first, whether it can offer internationally attractive programmes, and second, whether it can broadly and accurately advertise this appeal through vigorous exposition in accordance with global standards. This is why unique programmes forged through university collaboration are being recommended, based on the establishment of common standards for credits and degrees through the Bologna Process.

Instead of university credits, education based on the particular appeal of programme credits will be put into practice. In other words, transcending the systematic storehouse called university, there will be a concentration of knowledge centered around potential, particular themes or fields. What Japanese universities can learn from higher education reform in the EU is how to improve the quality of research and education and securing a competitive edge internationally, through strengthening horizontal collaboration around the cores of programmes and fields of study above and beyond differences among universities or geographic regions. In this regard, the strategic university collaboration between Keio University and Hitotsubashi University on EU Studies takes up this mission and shows great potential for the future.

  • Clifford Adelman, The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence (Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2009), viii.
  • European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System:A system whereby one ECTS course is set at 25-30 hours, 60 class credits are needed in a year, and credits are easily transferable among universities, standardized across the entire EU. The Bologna Process encourages the addition and accumulation of credits which transcend individual institutions.
  • Tuning projects precisely define the learning objectives, assessments, and development of competence in curricula, courses, programmes, and so on, through cooperation among universities. Credits are guaranteed to match across institutions, which is a necessary prerequisite for the awarding of cooperative degrees such as joint degrees or double degrees.

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