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Bologna-an overview of the main elements Print

The Bologna Process aims to facilitate mobility by providing common tools (such as a European Credit Transfer and accumulation System – ECTS and the Diploma Supplement) to ensure that periods of study abroad are recognised. These tools are used to promote transparency in the emerging European Higher Education Area by allowing degree programmes and qualifications awarded in one country to be understood in another.

An overarching structure (incorporating these elements) is being implemented through the development of national and European qualifications frameworks, which aim to provide a clearly defined system which is easy for students, institutions and employers to comprehend.

Three Degree Cycle

Two basic degrees, Bachelor and Master, have been adopted now by every participating country; sometimes in parallel to existing degrees during a transition period, sometimes replacing them completely. European universities are currently in the implementation phase, and an increasing number of graduates have now been awarded these new degrees. Typically, a Bachelor degree requires 180-240 ECTS credits and a Master programme between 90-120 ECTS credits, with a minimum of 60 ECTS at Master level. This allows for a flexible approach in defining the length of both Bachelor and Master programmes.

Many participating countries have made substantial changes to their systems in response to the Bologna Process. Introducing the new degrees has required a tremendous effort in reviewing curricula and expectations toward students. Already over half of European universities have reviewed their curricula entirely, using the Bologna reforms to implement a more student-focused approach and new quality procedures.

In the third cycle, European PhD programmes are not defined by ECTS credits, however, common principles are currently under discussion.

Shared descriptors for Short Cycle, First Cycle, Second Cycle and Third Cycle Awards
Known as the 'Dublin Descriptors' after the meeting in which they were agreed, in Dublin, March 2004

Ten basic principles for Doctoral (PhD) programmes
Agreed at the EUA Bologna Seminar on Doctoral Programmes in Salzburg, February 2005

To support universities in developing their doctoral programmes, EUA launched an additional membership service: the EUA Council for Doctoral Education.

Qualifications Frameworks

Qualifications Frameworks based on learning outcomes have become a central part of the Bologna Process and of the European Higher Education Area. The official Bologna seminar held in Edinburgh described learning outcomes as “the basic building blocks of the Bologna package of educational reforms” and endorsed the proposition that this methodological approach is at the heart of the paradigm shift from teacher to student-centred learning.  

It is increasingly recognized that qualifications frameworks have a pivotal role to play in bringing together various elements of the EHEA, including learning outcomes and ECTS credits. National qualifications frameworks (NQFs) have a pivotal role as the nexus where national reforms articulate with the Bologna Process/EHEA. Equally, NQFs provide an articulation between local developments in universities, with national developments and context.

At the Ministerial Conference held in Berlin in 2003, Ministers encouraged Bologna member States to develop NQFs for their higher education systems. They also undertook to develop an overarching framework of qualifications for the European Higher Education Area. At the following  Ministerial conference held in Bergen in 2005, Ministers adopted the overarching framework for qualifications in the EHEA, and committed themselves to elaborating NQFs compatible with the overarching framework for qualifications in the EHEA by 2010. Ministers meeting in London in 2007, recognising the challenging nature of the task, invited the Council of Europe to support the sharing of experience in the elaboration of national qualifications frameworks. The Council of Europe, working with the BFUG Coordination Group on Qualifications Frameworks and the Bologna Secretariat, has established a website with information regarding qualifications frameworks within the EUA.

The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)

An important tool used for credit transfer and accumulation, ECTS plays now an important part in curriculum design and in validating a range of learning achievements (academic or not). In this system, credits reflect the total workload required to achieve the objectives of a programme - objectives which are specified in terms of the learning outcomes and competences to be acquired - and not just through lecture hours. It makes study programmes easy to read and compare for all students, local and foreign, and therefore facilitates mobility and academic recognition.

ECTS Key Features
Key Features of ECTS as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System
EUA, 2003
ECTS/DS Users' Guide
The European Commission recently published an updated ECTS Users’ Guide presenting detailed information on ECTS key instruments, the Diploma Supplement, the ECTS and DS labels
European Commission, 2009

The Diploma Supplement

Compulsory for every graduate (since 2005), the Diploma Supplement is a tool which is attached to a higher education diploma and describes the degree’s qualification in an easily understandable way. It is designed to provide a standardised description of the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies that were successfully completed by the graduate. It is not a resume or a substitute for the original credential but rather a way of providing detailed information about any academic or professional qualification.

Development and main aims of the Diploma Supplement
European Commission website

Quality Assurance in the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process includes the promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance as one of its ten objectives. The current structural and curriculum reform provide an opportunity for universities to reflect upon management practices and to review programmes and teaching and assessment methods with the aim of ensuring their quality.

In parallel, common requirements for national systems have been defined at European level to improve the consistency of quality assurance schemes across Europe. European standards and guidelines (ESG) have also been developed for internal and external quality assurance in order to provide universities and quality assurance agencies with common reference points.

Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area
ENQA, 2005

The European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) has been established aiming at increasing transparency of quality assurance, and thus enhancing trust and confidence in European higher education.
For more information on the work EUA has been doing regarding Quality Assurance, please visit the Quality Assurance pages.


The recognition of qualifications is essential to allow students to study at different institutions in different countries. Work on agreeing the common recognition of qualifications predates the start of the Bologna Process, but overcoming legal recognition and administrative obstacles is one of the ten objectives of the reform process and a vital element in promoting mobility.

The Council of Europe's 'Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region' (usually referred to as the Lisbon Convention) entered into force on 1 February 1999. It seeks to ensure that holders of a qualification from one European country have that qualification recognised in another and refers to the Diploma Supplement. The majority of countries participating in the Bologna Process have signed the Lisbon Recognition Convention and all 45 are encouraged to sign by 2007.

Lisbon Recognition Convention
Convention on the recognition of qualifications concerning higher education in the European region
Council of Europe – UNESCO, 1997
Lisbon for Pedestrians - The Lisbon Convention - What is it?
Council of Europe - UNESCO
UNESCO/Council of Europe Code of Good Practice in the Provision of Transnational Education
Adopted by the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee
Council of Europe – UNESCO, 2001
Key tools and documents on recognition issues

Joint Degrees

Joint degrees (degree programmes involving and periods of study at multiple institutions) provide innovative examples of inter-university cooperation and can be seen as pillars of future European higher education development. Interest in joint programmes is increasing in Europe and project work (undertaken by EUA and other stakeholders) has sought to provide information, build upon successful practice, and to focus attention on the main challenges faced by joint programmes, such as regarding quality assurance. In recent years, many countries have adapted legislation to enable joint degrees to be awarded, and at European level an amendment to the Lisbon Recognition Convention (see above section on Recognition) was adopted in 2005 to facilitate the recognition of joint degree qualifications.

Developing Joint Masters Programmes for Europe
Results of the EUA Joint Masters Project (2002-2004)
EUA, 2004
Guidelines for Quality Enhancement in European Joint Master Programmes
EMNEM – European Masters New Evaluation Methodology EUA, 2006
Recommendation on the Recognition of Joint Degrees
By the Committee of the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region
Council of Europe – UNESCO, 2004
Explanatory Memorandum to the Recommendation on the Recognition of Joint Degrees
By the Committee of the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region
Council of Europe – UNESCO, 2004