In June of 1999, the education ministers of 29 European countries signed a voluntary, non-binding document called the Bologna Declaration. The declaration set forth a vision for the creation and promotion of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010, whereby national reforms would yield greater transparency, comparability, and cohesiveness in European higher education. Over time, reform measures were expanded, amended, and added to the initial objectives of the Bologna Declaration, thereby making the declaration somewhat of a living, breathing initiative. Today, it is now commonly known as the Bologna Process. Other key stakeholders of the original declaration and the ongoing Bologna Process include consultative members representing higher education institutions (HEIs), students, academics, business and enterprise, and quality assurance agencies in Europe.
The six original objectives of the Bologna Declaration included:
- Implementation of a Diploma Supplement to increase comprehension of formal credentials (e.g., university degrees)
- Adoption of a two cycle system of study (i.e., BA-MA)
- Creation of a credit system known as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)
- Promotion of greater international mobility (e.g., study abroad)
- Promotion of European-level cooperation in the field of quality assurance
- Promotion of a European dimension of higher education
Since the inception of the Bologna Declaration, education ministers from member states have met biennially to evaluate the objectives of the Bologna Process. These meetings, known as communiqués, have expanded the scope and size of the Bologna Process. Today, the Bologna Declaration includes a total of 47 member states from around Europe. Many new objectives were added with each meeting. Some objectives include:
- Greater international mobility not only for students, but for academics, and staff, as well as setting national mobility benchmarks
- The promotion of the attractiveness of the EHEA to third country international students (i.e., international students with citizenship outside of the European Union)
Congruently, two significant actions have expanded the mobility objective of the Bologna Process. The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) established widespread recognition and standardization of credit hours for coursework, as well as non-academic work, such as internships. For example, one year's worth of full-time academic instruction is equivalent to 60 ECTS credits, whereby one credit equals approximately 25-30 hours of work. Likewise, the Diploma Supplement supplies transparency by summarizing a completed degree to clarify the nature and content of one's studies. These two objectives are vital to the transferability and recognition of course work (e.g., in the case of a student receiving sufficient credits from a semester abroad or a graduate applying for a job abroad).
Almost 15 years have passed since the signing of the original Bologna Declaration. Naturally, European countries remain educationally, culturally, and economically diverse from one another and some central objectives of the Bologna Process have been met with mixed reaction; Germany offers a notable example.
Prior to the inception of the Bologna Process, the German higher education system functioned under its traditional cycle of study (i.e., Diplom for sciences/Magister for languages and humanities, followed by the Doctorate). The Diplom/Magister, which usually took four to six years to complete, was the lowest university degree offered in German HEIs. The now-defunct Diplom/Magister, however, is more akin to a master's degree rather than a bachelor's degree, as it required a longer period of study and specialized academic work at the graduate level. With the phasing out of the Diplom and Magister, early news reports eluded that the newly implemented Bachelor's degree was less valuable in the German labor market than the former Diplom/Magister, though there is growing research contradicting this notion.
Nonetheless, the overall goal of the Bologna Process has been achieved and widely applauded. The Bologna Process also spearheaded the EHEA to become an attractive destination for international student mobility. In comparison to popular international student host countries such as the US and Australia, the EU region ranks as one of three top host destination regions in the world — largely due to the Erasmus Program, which is now known as Erasmus+. Moreover, many European institutions offer quality education for a mere fraction of the average tuition in comparable parts of the world.