Guest blogger: The Bologna Process and its withering political salience

Jens Jungblut (UiO), Martina Vukasovic (UGent), Mari Elken (NIFU)

Jens Jungblut (UiO), Martina Vukasovic (UGent), Mari Elken (NIFU)

In this post, Jens Jungblut, Martina Vukasovic and Mari Elken examine the developments in the Bologna Process. In particular, focus is on the participation at the ministerial conferences and what these can tell us about the state of the Bologna Process.

Jens Jungblut works at the University of Oslo as a researcher and is a member of the ExCID research group, Martina Vukasovic is a post-doctoral researcher at CHEGG in Ghent University and Mari Elken is a researcher at NIFU. 

The ninth and latest ministerial conference of the Bologna Process earlier this year in Yerevan was one of these events where the European higher education community likes to celebrate itself for all of its achievements during the last 17 years of close policy coordination. This positive assessment was shared by most of the press reports that followed the meeting. Anne Corbett, for example, reported in the Times Higher Education that contrary to the “conventional wisdom” that the Bologna Process is no longer of interest for ministers and is left to technocrats and stakeholder organizations, the meeting in Yerevan was characterized by deft ministerial diplomacy, especially with regard to the admission of Belarus into the process.

This optimistic evaluation of the ministerial conference in specific and the political salience of the Bologna Process in general is somewhat contradicted by some of the reports that the different stakeholder organizations presented in Yerevan. While EUA’s TRENDS 2015 report  diplomatically highlights a growing importance of national policy-making in comparison to European-wide initiatives, ESU’s Bologna With Student Eyes 2015  openly warns about a growing lack of interest on the side of the national governments in the European Higher Education Area.

These different assessments of the importance of the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area for policy-makers on the national level are snapshots, and so far a longitudinal analysis of the shifts in political salience of European higher education policy coordination has largely been missing. This gap in our understanding of policy-making developments in the Bologna Process was therefore the starting point for a study that was recently published in “Studies in Higher Education”. Using the composition of the different delegations to the Ministerial conferences as a proxy, the study analyses the changes in political salience of the Bologna Process from its early days in 1998 in Sorbonne until (and including) this year’s conference in Yerevan. Composition of delegations can be argued to be a relevant proxy as high ranked representatives and sizable delegations would increase opportunities to influence the decisions made and/or have a signaling value for constituencies at home. Furthermore, the analysis not only focuses on the changes of national delegations but also assess how European stakeholder organizations are represented at the different conferences.

The ministerial conferences are used as main events for the analysis because they are symbolic events that represent milestones in the Bologna Process and they are also the place where the policy agenda for the coming years is ultimately decided. For the purposes of study, each delegation at each conference was treated as the unit of analysis and the main data source were the participation lists of all ministerial conferences from 1998 until 2015. The size of the delegation and the political rank of the head of delegation – measured on a 5-point ordinal scale that spans between ministers as highest value and a representation below the level of director general as lowest value – were used as main indicators. This data was complemented with stocktaking reports on the national implementation of the Bologna Process as well as content analysis of the communiqués and declarations.

The results show that the Bologna Process is at least partly losing its political salience and appeal to participatory countries, as both the rank and size of national delegations to the ministerial conferences seem to be declining. From the beginning of the Bologna Process in 1998 until the most recent conference in Yerevan the average national delegation decreased by three members and the average rank declined from the minister level to the one of a state secretary. Additionally, the Yerevan conference was also the first conference which was not attended by all signatory countries. Putting these developments in relation to the EU membership status of the country, it becomes visible that the decreasing trend is most pronounced for EU members, while candidates for EU membership and potential candidates show more variation but a less pronounced decrease. Looking at the relationship between the changes in rank and size of national delegations and a country’s progress in implementing the Bologna action lines, as reported in the stocktaking reports, it is interesting to see that there seems to be no significant correlation between these two factors. Finally, the size of delegations of European stakeholder organizations are found to fluctuate prior to the organizations’ official recognition as a stakeholder in the process, but once the organization is an “insiders” the size of their delegations remains relatively stable.

Overall, the decrease in political salience of the Bologna Process for the participating countries might suggest that the process is no longer necessary to legitimize domestic higher education reforms, or that the policy agenda of the process has less relevance in the domestic contexts. Another explanation could be that the European Higher Education Area may be losing significance as a policy arena also due to an increased importance of the EU as a locus of higher education policy discussions. This could explain why the observed changes were especially strong in EU member countries.

The lack of relationship between the composition of the national delegations and the implementation performance, as presented in the stocktaking reports, may indicate that ‘naming and shaming’ actually has less of an effect as it was expected and that there is less interest of actors in the Bologna Process to mitigate poor results. The stable size of stakeholder delegations even after they gained ‘insider’ status shows that the Bologna Process is still relevant for them and that they have a continuous interest in influencing policy-making on this level.

It seems as if the European Higher Education Area has lost at least some of its political appeal especially for EU countries, and that the fear of some of the European stakeholder organizations that the main locus of policy-making might shift, either to the national level or the EU, is not without reason. It remains to be seen whether the 20th anniversary of the Sorbonne declaration at the Ministerial conference in France in 2018 will see an increased interest also from ministers from EU countries and lift the process to the forefront of policy developments in Europe, or whether the political salience of the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area will continue on its withering path.