NPC/03/04/A: National Union of Students In Europe, Response to the Bologna Declaration

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Also in Consultations 2003...

by Tim Brown

Executive summary

The Bologna Declaration clearly supports promotion of mobility, recognition of degree qualifications across Europe and ability to adapt qualifications obtained wherever students, graduates or researchers move on to. Much of this, however, may well come at the expense of loss in UK degree standards if not arranged appropriately, which is of great concern to us. We therefore identify models such as subject benchmarks as indicators that will identify suitable minimum standards attained in a higher education qualification.

Preamble

The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is a charity with the aim of furthering UK postgraduate education in the public interest. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated student representative bodies from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers unions as well as other bodies relevant to postgraduate education.

Response to the Nine Lines

As requested we have responded to the nine lines in the Bologna Declaration in terms of how it will affect postgraduates in the United Kingdom. Each of these responses are addressed one by one.

1. Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees

We wish to move towards a system that identifies higher education qualifications more universally. However, liberalisation of quality assurance and standards is something we have already expressed opposition to following our response to the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS - available on our website). A further point for us to note on this is that the schooling system in the UK is significantly different such that students prior experience to higher education results in shorter degree course lengths and in some cases shorter postgraduate course lengths.

Given that the routes to achieving a degree and a postgraduate level degree are significantly different to many European countries, we would support a system similar to subject benchmarking introduced by the QAA so that qualification levels are more clearly identified according to the benchmark requirements. A summary of the subject benchmarks are at:

http://www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/nqf/ewni2001/contents.htm

We do stress, however, these definitions are very broad and abstract, however they could be used to recognise whether minimum standards across Europe are being implemented or not.

2. Adoption of a system based on two main cycles

There is some ambiguity in this line as to how a cycle is defined. It has been argued in the UK and other countries as to whether it is similar to level of study. In the UK it could be argued to some extent that the two cycles could be defined as taught (with the option of an enhanced master level undergraduate degree) and research since a research degree would normally be pursued following that. However, as the cycles are generally defined as undergraduate and graduate, there is some ambiguity as to the difference between taught and research postgraduate programmes, which are clearly different in level although cycle may not generally be defined this way. We would therefore consider the need to ensure that there is a clear difference identified between undergraduate degrees, taught postgraduate degrees and research degrees that may possibly require a third cycle. Added to this a third cycle may gain better consistency with the subject benchmarking system.

3. Establishment of a system of credits

We recognise the need for a modular system in order to enable greater mobility for students, particularly at postgraduate level where access to appropriate research may be necessary. The vast majority of undergraduate courses are currently all modular based. Also a majority of courses at postgraduate level are modular although not so much as undergraduate courses. It is generally the intention that all postgraduate taught courses will move in this direction over time as well as doctoral degrees with a taught element.

The traditional PhD (or MPhil), however, is not normally assessed by credits, since it is awarded based on the submission of a thesis or portfolio followed by a viva voce examination. Splitting a traditional PhD into credits would therefore have insignificant meaning. Further to this, it is also possible that a PhD can be awarded by published works, which would also not be suitable for a credit based system.

4. Promotion of mobility

At present, there is limited access or awareness regarding mobility for UK students so we would commend this line in the declaration. A main concern, however, for UK students would be the support to undertake mobility, particularly in a non-English speaking country. Further to this a board statement across Europe regarding equal opportunity may be necessary here since different countries may adopt different systems, particularly concerning disability. Promotion, accessibility and ease for researchers to apply for mobility is of paramount importance here increase participation.

5. Promotion of European co-operation in quality assurance

We would again oppose the liberalisation of quality assurance in this regard since it may seriously jeopardise the quality of UK degrees. We would be more supportive of using QAA subject benchmarks on this matter as described under line 1 so that degree standards could be identified universally. Adjusting our quality assurance to meet European standards could significantly affect the standards of UK higher education.

6. Promotion of the necessary European dimensions in higher education

We support this as beneficial to mobility and access for EU students coming to the UK. However, we would still wish to maintain the international reputation of education in the UK, which could otherwise be confused with other European qualifications. It would be concerning to us if European dimensions that could undermine the current UK system that is otherwise vital to the successes of education in the UK.

7. Lifelong learning

This issue has significance particularly in Scotland with the concern to make sure postgraduate education is included in lifelong learning. NPC Scotland has been actively campaigning against the lack of attention by the Scottish Executive to indicate how it might include postgraduate education in lifelong learning.

Further to this, credit based systems complement lifelong learning and allow the means to continue to postgraduate level by building on all previous learning. Structure should be in place to allow natural progression at all levels. We therefore stress the need to include postgraduate education within lifelong learning here in all aspects of taught and research degrees since it can be easily ignored.

8. Higher education institutions and students

This is important to us in terms of widening participation and that we want to create an attractive and welcoming environment particularly for the lower social classes who have in the past not benefited from such education. We would also support the need to attract UK students particularly towards postgraduate education where it may have still further to go with regards to the elite barriers in place. Further to this, the UK is exercising institutional audits, which will include a student submission to determine the student opinion as to whether they find that the standards are suitably meeting their expectations.

9. Promoting the attractiveness of the European higher education area

Again, referring back to line 6, we see that there is a difference between the international reputation of higher education in the UK compared to other European countries. We therefore raise our concerns as to how the concept of a European higher education area will be seen from outside Europe and whether UK education will continue to meet international expectations.