Transatlantic Convergence in Higher Education?

November 10, 2011

On November 10, 2011, the American Institute for Contemporary Studies (AGI) hosted a discussion on “Transatlantic Convergence in Higher Education? Comparing the Influence of the Bologna Process on Germany and the U.S.” The discussion was supported by a generous grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Ms. Tonia Bieber, DAAD/AGI Fellow, outlined in how far the European Bologna process has resulted in transatlantic convergence of higher education policies. In particular, she addressed the question: “On which policies of the Bologna process are the U.S. and Germany converging, and what role do transatlantic cooperation and exchange in higher education governance play for international economic competitiveness?”

Ms. Bieber began by giving an overview of the Bologna process, the most ambitious European higher education (HE) reform for decades. The goal of Bologna is to create a single European higher education area. The Bologna reform deeply transformed traditional policymaking and structures of HE and reallocated political power resources in Germany. In contrast, the reform’s impact on the highly decentralized U.S. system of higher education and its internationalization strategies largely remained opaque.

The internal goal of Bologna is to improve academic mobility and achieve comparability of degrees across Europe. The external goal concerns Bologna’s reception outside Europe, e.g., competitiveness and cooperation with other regions. Ms. Bieber stressed that joint development of HE by U.S. and European policymakers is indispensable for social and economic progress of the two regions.

In order to illustrate her findings, Ms. Bieber focused on the different situations in Germany and the U.S. In Germany the reforms changed policymaking procedures and HE structures in academic and administrative terms. The far-reaching changes are surprising due to federalist structures and guiding ideas on HE that were inconsistent with Bologna. New study programs were highly debated in the media and put education on top of the political agenda. However, the consequences of the Bologna reform are still unclear at an individual level. Questions concerning the employment prospects of bachelor graduates and whether the labor market is satisfied with the competences of the students graduating from the newly structured system remain open.

Bologna has received increasing attention in the U.S. in recent years. For example, the 2008 “Tuning USA” project adopts Bologna features in Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah, mostly in public higher education institutions (HEI), based on joint development by European and American scholars. Despite these efforts, the U.S. shows rather low convergence on the Bologna model compared to regions like South America and Australia.

Ms. Bieber pointed out factors that hinder the U.S. adaption and lesson drawing from transatlantic partners and thus limit Bologna’s leverage on the U.S., including the lesser role of the state due to guiding principles of institutional autonomy, privatization, and decentralization that hamper a far-reaching all-American reform. Moreover, policymakers consider their HE system to be idiosyncratic, arguing that it would be impossible to compare it with and transfer best practices from other countries.

American and European HE are comparable in terms of decentralization. In Germany, although Bologna’s aims are not binding, a once decentralized higher education system has become more uniform to some extent; this step has not yet been reached by the U.S.

In Germany, Bologna led to a complete HE transformation and triggered a shift toward transparency of student learning outcomes. Ms. Bieber stated that Bologna did not yet change much in the U.S., but it has the potential to do so. If focus is put on learning outcomes, there could be a major shift. But right now the U.S. does not have organizational structures comparable to those in Europe for implementing Bologna.

Finally, Ms. Bieber concluded that different philosophies that exist in Europe and the U.S. will keep them from completely harmonizing their systems and that it is improbable that Bologna will make transatlantic HE policies very similar in the next years. Furthermore, and most significantly, economic factors will affect U.S. HE in the years ahead.