Europe has decided to compete with the United States when it comes to education. More than 40 European countries are planning an unprecedented revolution in, and convergence of, their universities. Beginning in 2010, there will be a European Space for Higher Education, the only place in Europe where students, professors and researchers will be able to move about without borders. The result will be a higher-quality system that is more homogeneous and more competitive in its teaching methods.


Following the lead of several European Union members – France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy – 40 countries from throughout Europe have joined in this 11-year process, which began back in 1999 in Bologna, Italy. They have committed themselves to creating a common space for higher education that offers sufficient guarantees for student mobility.


Optimists see the Bologna process as a decisive step forward, constructing a society based on European knowledge. In culture and education, the new center will provide the same sort of convergence that has taken place in the political and economic arenas. Nevertheless, some pragmatists see this goal as a response to Europe’s need to improve its universities, and make them more dynamic. They say that’s the only way European universities can become a real alternative to the American educational system, which takes in more and more students from around the world.


“They are trying to improve the quality and competitiveness of European universities,” says Pedro Chacón, director general of universities at Spain’s ministry of education, culture and sports. “Moreover, Europe is a unified labor market, where citizens have the right to establish themselves in any member country. As a result, Europeans can’t conceive of placing obstacles in the path of those who want to have their professional degrees recognized elsewhere.” According to Angel G. Montoro, assistant rector at the University of Navarre (Spain), “The plan for convergence doesn’t involve any great reform of the university system. Instead, it is a common European location that simply facilitates mobility through the recognition and homogenization of degrees.”


The three pillars of the European Space for Higher Education are its system for granting European credits, its European supplement to the degree, and its plans for common study. In Spain, the first two pillars are already reflected in royal decrees regulating the parameters for measuring the new European credits, and the documentation attached to the new degree.


Ultimately, the European Credits Transfer System aims to unify different (national) educational systems. The current Spanish system of credits, established in 1992, is based on the number of hours of instruction given by the professor. The new model comes closer to the German or English systems. It gives greater weight to practical training, and the way credits are measured reflects how hard a student has worked. The new grade will reflect not only a student’s performance on exams, but also his or her lab experiments, presentations, hours spent on study, and so forth.


The European supplement to the degree is supposed to create a transparent system in which a degree issued in Rome, for example, has the same validity as a degree issued in Copenhagen. Moreover, a Spanish student will be able to take his first course in Brussels, his second in Paris, and his third in Berlin. The Supplement will act as a document that certifies the quality of a student’s academic curriculum.


At the moment, Spanish institutions continue to work with a first draft of the third pillar – the new study plans. It will be divided into two cycles: The first degree, equivalent to the current “Licenciatura” degree, will involve three or four years of study. Then, the postgraduate or master’s degree for specialized studies will involve an additional one or two years. For Spain, the biggest novelty will be that the master’s degree, currently granted by every sort of educational institution, will take on an official character and be granted by each university.


Obstacles to Convergence in Spain

To achieve the transformation of its university system, Spain is relying on these changes in rules. However, experts believe there will be some problems applying the new rules. For the most part, they will involve paying for the changes and getting Spanish professors to adjust to the new approach.


Last year, Spain’s public university budget grew by 23.5%. However, many of the country’s 50 public universities are concerned that there isn’t enough money in the government budget for them to adjust to the new system. Monica Melle, assistant dean of the economics department at the Complutense University of Madrid, argues that “If Spain is going to achieve convergence, we will need at least the same means and resources as [other] European universities. The decrees they are approving in this country should be accompanied by budgetary measures that provide the resources that universities need in order to implement them.”


Chacón believes that “improvements in quality can’t be made without paying a price. Every institutions involved in this process has to take responsibility. Not just public, state and autonomous (regional) agencies, but also universities themselves. When funding goes up, this doesn’t necessarily lead to improvements. You also need to make better use of existing resources. We shouldn’t forget that the percentage of GDP devoted to education in Spain is higher than in Italy and Germany.”


Spain will also have trouble making the required changes in teaching methods. The new approach will require the active participation of professors. “They say, professors can’t make changes but I am not so pessimistic about that. In 1992, when the study plan introduced the credit system, we professors adjusted perfectly to a system that had been very rigid,” says Montoro. His institution, the University of Navarre, is one of 19 private universities in Spain.


Higher Quality Training, Better Professional Preparation

One maxim of the convergence process is that it will guarantee a comparable level of educational quality throughout Europe after university degrees are recognized throughout the continent. “If the Bologna process had not started, we Spaniards would have had to invent it. There is a great need for modernizing the way we provide degrees, and how degrees meet the needs of our labor market and Spanish society,” says Chacón.


Currently, there is an imbalance between the kinds of skills acquired during a university career and the skills that make a graduate employable. Spain’s most critical voices have described their universities as an “unemployment factory” because of the low level of usable skills. According to Career After Higher Education, a research project involving 11 countries of the European Union, 25% of Spain’s graduates believe that their jobs have little or nothing to do with what they learned at college. According to Montoro, “One concern in the Bologna process involves cross-teaching. This refers not only to knowledge acquired at school, but to professional skills that are acquired there. This includes such things as teamwork, oral expression, organizational skill, public speaking, planning, and motivational skill. Doing that [at the university] requires a change in mindset.”


If the new degrees focus more on job-related skills, and the new teaching method is more practical, Spanish graduates will wind up being more employable. Moreover, their professional skills will have more impact, and they will derive more benefits from the geographical mobility [built into the convergence measures.]


According to experts, the new master’s degree will mean higher quality standards for European education. Yet, when it comes to measuring quality, the final grade will inevitably be decided in Europe’s labor market. As Melle explains, “Just because the master’s degree is official, that doesn’t guarantee its quality. The excellence of the master’s degree will be measured more by job hiring trends than by anything else. Some Spanish institutions, such as Deusto, IESE, and ESADE, are considered high-quality by both the public and employers.”


Spanish Supply for Latin America

Although Spain has two million of Europe’s total of 12 million university students, foreign students comprise only 2.2% of all students in Spain. In contrast, 13% of all students at German universities are foreigners. In the United Kingdom, the figure is 15.9%. That compares with a rate of 32.6% in the United States.


The convergence plan could make Europe an attractive alternative to the United States for many Latin American students, because of the higher quality and greater specialization of the new European master’s programs. “Attracting Latin American students to our country is a fundamental strategic goal. It’s an area where Spain has a unique advantage because of its language, among other factors,” notes Chacón. “We will be the best alternative. Our institutions are less costly than those in America,” agrees Montoro. At his institution, the University of Navarre, 30% of all graduate students are already Latin Americans.


When it comes to Latin America, Spain’s shortcoming is its procedures for validating and recognizing foreign degrees. “We have suffered from barriers and our slow pace of validating foreign degrees. We should ask authorities to make it easier to recognize foreign degrees and facilitate visas. We can do this without sacrificing strict enforcement and guarantees,” says Montoro. Meanwhile, Melle says, “Dating back to the decree of 1973, we have had a reactionary system for validating and comparing degrees. When a South American student comes to Spain and applies for official approval of his or her degree, the process can take two years. With the new system, we hope things change.”


Adds Melle: “For Latin America students, Spain has become the second or third option. Students from Mexico, Argentina or Brazil react to the relative proximity of the United States, and they are attracted by its image of excellence and high reputation. Often, that image coincides with reality, but not always. This much is clear – American institutions are very skilled at selling themselves.”


No one doubts that the European Space for Higher Education will make Spain’s  line-up of universities more attractive to Latin American students. But Spanish universities will also have to make some moves on their own behalf. According to Montoro, “We are not used to selling our universities. Nowadays, the universities are all doing that because there are fewer and fewer Spanish students, and the competition is expanding [its efforts] in Europe.”


A Highly Competitive Race of Universities

The Bologna process and the royal decrees that resulted have sounded the starting signal for a race involving Spain’s universities. That race is “generating lots of competition,” says Melle. “Institutions are fighting to become pilot locations for various projects because everyone wants to lead the convergence process.”


Responsible institutions are talking about a healthy competition among Spanish universities. “At the moment, there is already enough competition among universities. But there is going to be a lot of competition aimed at not getting left behind, and getting to the front of the pack. Each university will have to figure out where it should be. The royal decrees provide universities with more flexibility to plan their most attractive offerings. Institutions will have to place their bets on specific programs. Just because there is a common European space, that doesn’t mean that all universities will have the same study plans; it only guarantees certain minimum features,” says Montoro.


Spain’s ministry of education is still outlining its new catalogue of degrees and diplomas. It will be ready for the next meeting of European education ministers, scheduled for Norway next year. The goal of that meeting will be to complete the task of creating a new structure of university courses divided into two cycles — graduate and postgraduate. In Spain, educators are trying to reach an agreement among institutions, deans, professional colleges, rectors and administrators. The fact that general elections are just around the corner, on March 14, adds even more uncertainty, says Chacón. “A change of government could have an impact on some specifics, and it would mean a delay in processing the royal decrees that are still not ready. However, I sincerely believe that it would not mean any changes in Spain’s objectives, nor in the measures that Spain has taken with respect to European convergence,” he adds. “That’s because, it’s unthinkable for Spain not to be involved.”