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European higher education and the Bologna process

by Florent Bick last modified 2010-11-04 10:38


in charge of research at FUCaM (the Catholic university of Mons)

European higher education and the Bologna process

During the second half of the 20th century, higher education was little investigated by the sociologists of education whose research works bore mostly on the influence of the social category on course choice and achievement opportunities. The position that higher education was a black box has weakened and the process started at the Sorbonne in 1998 known as “the Bologna process” together with the Lisbon strategy launched in 2000 put higher education in the limelight. The Bologna process legitimised a shift in the focus from the democratisation of education to the training of elites and made Europe, if not the world the right level for the analysis of education policies. This process, which involves coordinating national education policies through intergovernmental cooperation, has become a landmark for the restructuring of the higher education systems of the 47 signatories of the Council of Europe’s Cultural Convention.

I will address how the Bologna process is run and focus on new decision-making that the Bologna process experimented at European level in a field of national competence. I will analyse the tactics that allowed the European Commission to influence the management of the process of which it had been explicitly left aside when it was launched in 1998.

Firstly, I will show how the 1998 meeting of the four higher education ministers in charge for France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom in the Sorbonne allowed the French minister Claude Allègre to initiate a European plan for higher education that the European Commission then directed. This plan soon became crucial and a deciding factor (it is in the interest of no stakeholder of higher education to launch an initiative if it is felt that it might be regarded as unacceptable or inadequate).

Then I will briefly describe how the European Commission, states and lobbies fought to control the network that the Bologna process pushed them to set up together through the sociology of translation (Actor-Network-Theory or ANT). ANT reveals the shifts that occurred in the orientations of the process whenever the relations between actors changed. It will also allow me to emphasise the soft methods through which the Commission seized control of the process to reform higher education in Europe.

Finally, I will deal with the future of the process and of European higher education. The legitimacy of the European Commission has been disputed since 1999 and states have repeatedly sought to reduce its influence. The evolution of the power struggle between the Commission and member states is unforeseeable but the integration dynamic has slowed or even come to a halt. The future of European higher education is very difficult to predict. The failure of the Lisbon strategy and the weak legitimacy of the European Commission may cause European higher education to fall into oblivion. EC’s instruments and recommendations guide member states’ policies and invite them to bring reforms to completion. The problem will emerge in the near future when the matter is to give sense to what has been developed.

Education et sociétés
Numéro 21
Former des élites dans un monde incertain
Coordonné par Yves Dutercq
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Association internationale des sociologues de langue françaiseComité de recherche n °7 Éducation, Formation, Socialisation
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