Prague, 25 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Now that one can drive across much of Europe almost unhindered by border checks, it's easy to lose sight of how fragmented the continent remains in many ways.
In higher education, for instance, the various countries have traditionally been aloof from one another, with each following its own system born out of its culture and history.
But in an era when Europe has made great strides towards integration, that's now changing.
Under an initiative called the “Bologna Process,” the governments of 40 countries in Europe and beyond are cooperating to streamline their university study courses so that they are largely compatible with one another.
The participating governments have pledged to create a common framework for university degree courses, and for recognising each others' degree certificates.
"What the process is trying to do is to make higher education qualifications and higher education [itself] more understandable, more compatible across Europe."
At first glance, that may not seem so exciting. But in fact, by helping to move towards a huge single market in education, the process will bring increased opportunities for students to study and possibly to work in countries other than their own
By any measure, the Bologna Process, named after the Italian city where the program’s initial meeting took place, is an ambitious undertaking. It began in 1999 with only four participating countries. But its aim is to have a "European Higher Education Area" fully established in all 40 member states by 2010.
David Crosier, of the Brussels-based European University Association, (EUA) explains the motivation for the Bologna Process.
"It's both an issue of being open to the wider world, but also an issue of being compatible and coherent within Europe," Crosier said.
In other words, it will be easier for graduates to have their degrees recognised in all 40 participating states. And those students who decide to continue their studies in another country, will be more easily able to gain recognition and credits for their work at home. As part of that, academic grades are required to be transparent and easily compared.
And the framework for degrees will be standardised. Three years for a bachelor degree, two extra years for a master's degree, proceeding thereafter to a doctorate.
Thomas Nilsson, secretary-general of the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), points out the usefulness of this.
"It is beginning to make a difference on the ground, many countries are now applying the Bologna process on their degree structures, for example Italy before the Bologna process mainly had six-year degree courses -- which meant that if you did not make the full six years, only five years, you had no degree at all," Nilsson says.
Nilsson says Italian students are well satisfied with the change, which allows quicker preparation for a working life, and less drain on their resources.
The value of this process of mutual recognition is especially great for small countries. Take the Caucasus states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, which joined the Bologna process only in May, along with Ukraine and Moldova.
Under Bologna, for instance, a veterinary student in Tbilisi or Yerevan will have a simpler time having his or her qualifications recognised all over Europe, from Moscow, to Istanbul to Dublin.
Of course, this development implies that universities should observe a high quality level, and Bologna sets out guidelines on that. However, the European University Association, which holds official observer status in the Bologna Process, says the quality assurance program is not meant to impose on all universities the same uniform courses.
"What the process is trying to do is to make higher education qualifications and higher education [itself] more understandable, more compatible across Europe, but not to make it more uniform or standardised; so the goal is not to have the same education on offer across Europe, it's to retain and promote cultural diversity but to make the systems more understandable to each other," Crosier says.
A warning however comes from Slovenian student Katja Kamsek, who is doing a pharmacy degree in Ljubljana. She's a member of the executive committee of the ESIB student body. She says not all the participating countries have done their homework on degree structures.
True, they have broken up the work into a three-year degree followed by two years for an advanced degree, but she says the substance of the course work remains unreformed, meaning that a student must still do a full five years to get the content for proper employment qualifications.
On the positive side, Kamsek says it's also of key importance that the latest summit of the Bologna Process, at Bergen in Norway in May, addressed for the first time the broader needs of students, such as financial help and counseling.
"What we strive for [at ESIB] is that the Bologna Process should now pay much more attention to the social dimension, which has been extremely neglected until the Bergen summit; we are very satisfied with the Bergen communique, which recognised this [dimension], and now it is stated that social matters should receive more emphasis,” Kamsek said.
The Bergen communique states that the participating countries renew their commitment to making quality higher education "accessible to all, and stress the need for appropriate conditions for students so they can complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background."
The Bergen communique [from the Bologna Process' summit in Norway in May] says the proposed European Higher Education Area will also seek to be a "partner" of higher education systems in other regions of the world.
As EUA spokesman Crosier puts it: "There has already been a significant [international] impact by Bologna, as systems are re-thinking the way they do things in different parts of the world, so I think what happens in Europe will inevitably have knock-on effects in other parts of the world, just as what is happening in other parts of the world will affect the way Bologna is developing."
The Bologna Process consists of all 25 European Union states, plus candidate members Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, plus the west Balkan states Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, and Bosnia, plus Russia and the Caucasus states Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, plus Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, plus Andorra and the Holy See. See also:
The Role Of Religion In Classrooms
In East, Poverty And Women’s Status Keep Drop-Out Rate High