The European Higher Education Area and the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process is a voluntary higher education reform process, which commenced in 1998/99, with the aim of making higher education systems compliant, and enhancing their international visibility. EUA plays an active role in the Bologna Process representing views of the universities, and participates in practically all its events and activities. Many of EUA projects are dedicated to the development of European policies and practice in the context of Bologna. EUA has also contributed to explaining and promoting the Bologna Reforms around the globe. While the reforms are relatively well-known by now, they still provide a basis for global dialogue with international partner organisations.

This is an introduction into Bologna Basics. Further and more detailed information and documentation can be found on the official EHEA website.

What is the Bologna Process and who participates?

  • The Bologna Process has been started in 1998 (Sorbonne Declaration) by four countries (France, Germany, Italy, the UK). From 1999, when the Bologna Declaration has been launched, more countries joined.
  • 2010 has been a milestone for the Bologna Process: At the Vienna-Budapest Ministerial Conference, the European Higher Education Area has been launched.  At the same time, it has been decided to continue the Bologna Process, at least until 2020. More information on the history of the process can be found on the EHEA website .
  • The Bologna Process is a rather unique approach to reform and internationalise higher education systems and institutions and establish regional convergence. At its heart is the partnership between national governments. It is not a European Union initiative, but all EU Member States and the European Commission are involved in the Process. Bologna is a voluntary process: reforms are jointly agreed, but implementation is subject to national suzerainty.
  • Currently, the Bologna Process has 57 parties: 49 higher education systems in 48 countries (incl. Belgium Flemish and French Community), the European Commission, and seven Consultative Members. In principal, all countries that are signatories of the European cultural convention are eligible to join the Bologna Process. In addition, representatives of the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) participate in Bologna meetings and events.
  • The active participation of “stakeholder organisations”, which represent higher education community and society, is an important feature of the process: They are permanent consultative members (i.e. they attend all meetings but do not vote). Along with  EUA, which represents the European universities, these are EURASHE (representing professional higher education institutions), the European Students’ Union (ESU), Education International (EI), the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA, representing quality assurance agencies), and Business Europe and UNESCO.

What are the main issues in the Bologna Process?

In its first phase, the Bologna Process focussed on 10 Action lines. With time, these have been rephrased, and further developed. Major Bologna goals and instruments are:

  • A converged degree structure: three study cycles of Bachelor, Masters and Doctorates, laid down in the EHEA Qualifications Framework, which is largely compliant with higher education qualifications in the EU Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning. In the Yerevan Communiqué, Ministers agreed to recognize short cycle degrees.
  • A joint credit system, usually the European credit transfer system (ECTS) or a compliant system. 
  • Mobility of students and staff.
  • Internationalisation of higher education systems and institutions, the international visibility of the EHEA, also named “Bologna in a global setting” or “international attractiveness”.
  • A European Dimension of Quality Assurance – based on the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) and the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) – so far the only institution created by the Bologna Process.
  • Social dimension, lifelong learning and widening access and participation.
  • Recognition of study periods, based on the credit system, and degrees, in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

How does the Bologna Process work?

  • Ministers in charge of higher education usually meet every two to three years in Bologna Ministerial Conferences, sometimes referred to as Ministerial Meetings, in order to assess progress made and to set out new goals and actions. Since 2009, Leuven/Louvain, a Bologna Policy Forum has been organised back-to-back with the Ministerial Conferences, inviting Ministers from non-Bologna countries.
  • The Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) gathers two to three times a year the representatives of Ministries and consultative members. It is in charge of the actual work and the steering of the process. It develops and decides on the rules and working methods, and sets up working groups, task forces and similar, comprising BFUG members, but on occasion also other parties, also through Bologna Conferences and seminars.
  • The Bologna Secretariat supports the Process. It is usually provided by and hosted in the country which hosts the next Ministerial Conference. There has been a discussion on establishing a standing Secretariat, and also on the internationalisation of the Secretariat’s staff.
  • The Bologna Board meets usually twice a year, ahead of BFUG meetings, which to prepare is its main role. Since 2010, it is composed of the outgoing, present and incoming EHEA co-chairs (i.e. the EU Presidency country plus a non-EU Bologna country, in total six), the European Commission, and four consultative members (Council of Europe, EUA, ESU, EURASHE).
  • The most important outcomes of the Bologna Process are the Ministerial Communiqués. In addition there are reports from working groups and also more binding documents such as the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). Monitoring progress and reporting has in the early years been done through a stocktaking report and reports from thematic working groups. Since the Ministerial meeting in Bucharest (2012), most of these have been replaced by a more holistic Bologna Implementation Report. In 2014, the BFUG has decided to make also working documents accessible to the public, in order to enhance transparency.

Direct participation in the Bologna Process

EUA has been closely involved in the Bologna Process since it was conceived, with the aim of ensuring the involvement of Europe’s universities. It is officially a consultative member of the Bologna Process and participates in all its activities (with the exception of voting). It participates in the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG - an intergovernmental meeting-process for senior officials of signatory countries and stakeholder organisations), and its working groups and task forces.

In addition, EUA has also been tasked by Ministers to develop the following:

Studies on and implementation and dissemination of Bologna policies

In close collaboration with members and partners EUA also conducts studies and good practice initiatives and promotes the further development and implementation of the Bologna Process reforms.

EUA issues declarations and statements on the eve of the ministerial conferences. They are usually based on the results of the Trends reports , which provide the perspective of higher education institutions on Bologna reforms and in recent years also on other developments that impact the European higher education landscape.

EUA also provided guidance and evidence in order to advance specific Bologna Action Lines, e.g. in the area of lifelong learning, the degree system and on mobility.

Several of EUA’s projects have also contributed to promoting the EHEA in a global setting and sharing practice regarding higher education regional reform and harmonisation processes that have gained speed in different world regions.

In 1998 France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany signed the Sorbonne Declaration on the "harmonisation of the architecture of the European Higher Education System".

In 1999, Ministers of Education from 29 European countries signed the Bologna Declarationpdf.gif which aims to create a coherent and cohesive European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010. The main objectives outlined in this statement were as follows:

  • adopt a system of easily readable and comparable degrees
  • adopt a system with two main cycles (undergraduate/graduate)
  • establish a system of credits (ECTS)
  • promote mobility by overcoming legal recognition and administrative obstacles
  • promote European co-operation in quality assurance
  • promote a European dimension in higher education.

Since the adoption of the Bologna Declaration in 1999, European Ministers of Education have met every two years to further discuss and build upon the initial objectives. It is at this time that the Ministers produce a communiqué: the Prague (2001), Berlin (2003), Bergen (2005) and London (2007) communiqués each outline the progress made thus far as well as future short and long term priorities.

In Praguepdf.gif, it was agreed to add three more action lines:

• inclusion of lifelong learning strategies
• involvement of higher education institutions and students as essential partners in the Process
• promotion of the attractiveness of the European Higher Education Area.

In Berlinpdf.gif, they agreed to speed up the process by setting an intermediate deadline of 2005 for progress on:

• quality assurance
• the adoption of a system of degree structures based on two main cycles
• recognition of degrees.

Moreover, they decided to add the additional Action Line "Doctoral studies and promotion of young researchers", including specific mention of doctoral programmes as the third cycle in the Bologna Process.

In Bergenpdf.gif, Ministers committed themselves for their next meeting in 2007 to reinforcing the social dimension and removing obstacles to mobility, as well as to making progress on:

Implementing the agreed standards and guidelines for quality assuranceImplementing national frameworks of qualificationsAwarding and recognising joint degreesCreating opportunities for flexible learning paths in higher education

In the last ministerial meeting in London pdf.gif(17-18 May 2007) Ministers underlined that good overall progress has been made in the last two years in the realisation of the EHEA. However, many challenges still remain.

You can read the London Communiqué: Towards the European Higher Education Area: responding to challenges in a globalised world also in French.

The 2009 Communiqué pdf.giffrom Leuven and Louvain-La Neuve underlines the importance of maintaining the existing stakeholder approach post 2010 – which means that students, universities, business, in tandem with governments, will share responsibility for the development of future reforms and cooperation. (A French version of the Communiqué is available here pdf.gif.) EUA welcomes the fact that the Communiqué takes up many of the key points stressed in its recent Prague Declaration pdf.gifto Ministers. In particular, the Communiqué underlines the importance of increasing the quality and quantity of mobility in Europe, together with many of the other key issues underlined in the EUA Declaration including taking forward lifelong learning, notably through the take-up up of EUA’s Lifelong Learning Charter pdf.gif, and improving researcher careers.

For the first time as part of a Bologna Ministerial Summit, Ministers from the 46 European countries participating in the Leuven/Louvain-la Neuve meeting were joined by Ministers or heads of delegation from 15 countries from Africa, Asia, America (North and South) and Australasia as part of a ‘Bologna Policy Forum’. Please click here to read more and to download the statement from the meeting.

In 2010, the Vienna Ministerial Conference and the 2nd Bologna Policy Forum took place. 
With the Vienna Declaration, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has been officially launched. EUA has reflected on the achievements of the Bologna Process so far, and on the new steps to be taken in the first decade of the EHEA in its TRENDS 2010 report.

In 2012, the Bucharest Ministerial Conference took place, together with the 3rd Bologna Policy Forum. It put a strong emphasis on implementation of existing policy goals. This has been underpinned by the Bologna Implementation report, prepared with the support of Eurydice, Eurostudent and Eurostat, which provided more concise data, and took a closer look at progress made.

In the period of 2012 to 2015 the work of the BFUG has been organised in four major working groups: The Reporting Working Group (also called Implementation Working Group) prepared the 2nd Bologna Implementation Report, But also the other working groups on Structural Reforms (QA, QF, Recognition and Transparency), the Social Dimension and LLL, and Mobility and Internationalisation and some of their substructures prepared reports, some of them comprising policy recommendations, guidelines etc. The 2015 Yerevan Communiqué clearly stated the need to take up new priorities in view of social and economic and also technical changes. 

Further information is available at the official EHEA website:


Yerevan 2015

The Yerevan Ministerial Conference and Fourth Bologna Forum  took place in period of 14-15 May 2015 in Armenia. It concluded a 3-year work phase which started in 2012 with the Bucharest Conference, adopted some revised and new instruments and also set out new goals up to 2018, when the next conference will be hosted by France.

The Conference was a success regarding participation: With 45 of 47 countries, almost all country members have been attending, many represented by their ministers.  In addition, the European Union, the Council of Europe and organisations representing “stakeholders” attended. As one of the results of the conference, Belorussia has been admitted as the 48 country, subject to a roadmap which is would have to fulfill. Only two non-Bologna countries - Kirgizstan and Turkmenistan - participated in the Bologna Policy Forum – which was however attended by many regional and national organisations.

The Yerevan Communiqué points to a number of new and revised instruments of the Bologna Process

  • The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG)  have been revised, in that they are now more consistent in wording and structure, e.g. what is a standard and what is a guideline, and written in a way that they better accommodate transnational education provision.
  • A European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes has been agreed which should solve the problem of joint programmes facing different national QA regimes with potentially conflicting rules. It stipulates that joint programmes offered by institutions subject to different external QA regimes at programme level would only have to undergo one external QA. In these systems, the Bologna approach should be compulsory. In systems with external QA at institutional level, the institution may refer to the joint approach as a source for inspiration for internal QA.
  • The ECTS User’s Guide has been revised. Previously an EU document, it is now an official document of the Bologna Process. While it will be valid now at least up to 2020, the need to have another revision round has already been mentioned, in order to ensure that the guide will comply better with on-line learning, and possibly also react to new developments such as mini-credits and badges.

Not mentioned in the Communiqué is the acknowledged need to revise the Diploma Supplement - probably because the instrument is owned jointly by the EU, the Council of Europe, and UNESCO.

The emphasis on implementing reforms and “unfinished work”, which has been one if not the central issue since the launch of the EHEA in 2010 has been enhanced : 

  • Full compliance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC) is stated, and one could add as in every previous Communiqué, but there is also a commitment to “ ‘automatic recognition’ of qualifications at the same level”. This has been mentioned for the first time in the 2012 Bucharest Communique, proposed by the European Commission and has resulted into a Pathfinder Group on the issue. The report proposes a more consequent and diligent application of the LRC at national and institutional levels, and also points to some European regional (plurilateral) initiatives for automatic recognition. What exactly this is going to entail in practice, is still to be determined.
  • The Communique is much also much more explicit than in the past regarding staggering implementation of reforms: “Non-implementation in some countries undermines the functioning and credibility of the whole EHEA”. As Bologna remains in essence a voluntary process, and implementation is subject to national suzerainty, it will be interesting to see how this will be followed up. 

Some new commitments have been made, others have been renewed:

  • A focus on innovation in teaching in learning and using digital technologies and ICT has been announced, and also a commitment to explore these in close collaboration with stakeholders.
  • Short cycle qualifications (resulting from undergraduate study programmes, which are shorter than a Bachelor) will become part of the overarching framework of qualifications for the European Higher Education Area (QF-EHEA). This does not mean that all countries will have short cycle programmes, but all countries will recognise them.
  • a group of volunteering countries and organizations will be established to facilitate “professional recognition”; note that recognition of professional qualifications has been perceived as a complex issues already within the EU.
  • Ministers also subscribed to that higher education institutions could use a EQAR registered agency for their external quality assurance process. This has been mentioned before, but is now worded in a more explicit fashion, though what is a “suitable agency” and what “respecting the national arrangements for the decision making on QA outcomes” is up for interpretation.

In 2010, it has been decided to continue the Bologna Process up to 2020. The 2018 Bologna Meeting is going to take place in France, which provides the Bologna Secretariat for this period.

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