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Report Urges U.S. Colleges and Universities to Learn and Adopt From Europe’s Higher Education Accountability Reforms

Washington, D.C.

While it’s far from certain whether the U.S.-based higher education accountability movement will see colleges and universities nationally instituting learning standards and other accountability measures, one Washington-based higher education policy research organization is taking a hard look at the global restructuring of higher education in recent years and determining what lessons might apply in the United States.

In the second issue brief of a five-part study being developed by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), the brief, “Learning Accountability from Bologna: a Higher Education Policy Primer,” reports on how the restructuring of 46 European higher education systems since 1999 could yield important policies around student learning that are applicable in the United States. IHEP officials released the issue brief on Monday.

“The U.S. higher education system, the world’s most complex, is imperfectly struggling with accountability issues, yet the largest restructuring of higher education the world has ever seen has addressed accountability in ways we have not even imagined,” says Dr. Clifford Adelman, a IHEP senior associate and the author of the “Learning Accountability from Bologna” report.

Under what is known as the ‘Bologna Process,’ higher education restructuring is taking place across Europe, including students speaking 23 major languages from Iceland to Turkey. Some 4,000 institutions enrolling 16 million students, a size similar in scope to the U.S. system of higher education, have been included in the restructuring.  

The key goals of the Bologna Process are as follows:

• Every degree is publicly defined so that it’s known what it means in terms of the demonstration of knowledge; the application of knowledge; fluency in the use of information; breadth, depth, and effectiveness of communication; and degree of autonomy gained for subsequent learning.

• There is broad understanding of the differences in performance criteria for an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree.

• Credits are based on a common standard of student workload and in a growing number of countries individual courses are assigned a level of challenge so that the combination of workload and level guarantees transfer of credits.

• Every student who earns a degree receives, as a supplement to the diploma and a transcript, an official documented summary of the setting, nature, purpose, and requirements of the degree and major program —- and a shorthand description of what the student did to earn the degree.

          Adelman says the Bologna Process has worked diligently on getting the institutions in the participating nations to focus on defining each degree in terms of learning outcomes.

          “In the U.S. when you read the language on what degrees are about, it can be described as ‘blah.’ You can’t tell; you don’t know what it means. You don’t know what an associate degree means; you don’t know what a bachelor degree means. All you know is that you have to do 120 credits and have a minimum 2.5 GPA. You don’t know anything else,” Adelman says.

          “(The Europeans are) trying to say ‘if you’re going to put a degree out there this is what it means,’” he adds.  

          Dr. Anita Nahal, the director of the International Affairs and Women’s Studies Programs at the Howard University graduate school, has researched and written about higher education reform in South Asia and Europe. She says the European higher education reforms carry the benefit of allowing greater mobility among European and non-European students.

          “It aimed, in my opinion, towards achieving greater academic, physical and cultural mobility among European nations that were part of the Bologna declaration, but more so to provide students a standardized, equitable system of education, easily accessible across borders,” says Nahal, who is a former professor at the Sri Venkateswara College at the University of Delhi in India.

          “Furthermore, the mobility across borders and the opportunity to study in standardized equal systems/institutions across Europe, would bring the youth in contact with those culturally and ethnically different from them and would hopefully nurture greater cultural appreciation — a necessity in today’s world of increasingly complex political climate,” Nahal adds.

          Key IHEP issue brief recommendations urge U.S. institutions to focus on:

• Developing detailed and public degree qualification frameworks for state higher education systems and in students’ major fields;

• Revising the terms of the American credit system by adding a rating of academic challenge for each course’s credits;

• Developing a distinctive U.S. version of a diploma supplement that summarizes individual student achievements in ways that a transcript does not do.

          Says Adelman, “Bologna is a work in progress, but pieces of it have already been imitated and adapted in Latin America, Africa, and Australia, and it is well on its way to becoming the dominant global paradigm of higher education within the next two decades.”

          The five-part series is part of IHEP’s Measuring Global Performance Initiative, which was launched in 2007. This past May, IHEP released the first part of the series, a detailed essay written by Adelman entitled ‘The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Reconstruction.’ Both publications are available at

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