Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education

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Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education

by Guy Haug and Jette Kirstein

7 June 1999

Contents: Introduction (by Inge Knudsen) 2

Part I: ”Main Trends and Issues in Higher Education

Structures in Europe” (by Guy Haug) 4
Part II: ”Information on Learning Structures in Higher

Education in the EU/EEA countries”

(by Jette Kirstein) 18
Appendix: The Sorbonne Declaration of 25 May 1998:

What it does say, what it doesn’t.

(by Guy Haug) 56

The project is undertaken by the Confederation of European Union Rectors’ Conferences and the Association of European Universities (CRE) with financial support from the European Commission (agreement no. 98-01-CER-CER-0642-00).

The report is the result of the studies undertaken and expresses the points of view of the authors and not those of the European Commission, the Confederation and the CRE.

The report on the project, Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education, is hereby presented as a background paper for the Bologna Forum on 18-19 June 1999. The report comprises information on and analyses of current trends in higher education structures in the Member States of the European Union and the European Economic Area. The objective of the project has been to provide an outline and overview of learning structures in higher education and a comparative analysis of the different systems embodying these structures, thereby offer­ing a tool to identify possible divergences and convergences in the national and institutional policies.

At the Sorbonne Forum on 25 May 1998, the (then) Italian Minister, Prof. BERLINGUER, extended an invitation to fellow Ministers in charge of higher education in other countries to attend a follow-up meeting in Bologna in 1999. The Sorbonne Forum was organised in connection with the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, with the assistance of the French Conference of University Presidents (CPU). At this meeting the Sorbonne Declaration was adopted, and a ”Joint Declaration on Harmonisation of the Architecture of the European Higher Education System” was signed by the four Ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Invitations to the Bologna Forum have been forwarded from the Italian Minister, Mr. Ortensio ZECCHINO, to Minister colleagues and from the Rettore F. ROVERSI-MONACO of the University of Bologna to higher education institutions and other stakeholders in higher education throughout Europe.
As part of the preparations for the planned Bologna Forum, the Confederation of European Union Rectors’ Conferences undertook, in co-operation with the Association of European Universities (CRE), a project for the European Commission (DG XXII), on Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education.

The Project
The aim of the Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education project has been to provide an overview of structures throughout the European Union and the European Economic Area and an outline of areas of divergence and convergence within these learning structures.
The project has been composed of three major strands: data collection, comparative analysis and validation of results and revision of report. The project has been under constant time constraint and this has implied a limitation of the countries studied, to the EU and EEA countries. Another result of the time constraints has been that the two parts of the report, the structural overview and the comparative analysis, have not been combined into one single paper. As part of the follow-up to the project after the Bologna Forum, comments from the different stake­holders will be included and a second phase of the project will involve other European countries, notably countries seeking accession to the European Union.
The preparations for the Bologna Forum were discussed at an informal meeting of the EU Ministers of Education and at a meeting of Directors-General of Higher Education and Presidents of Rectors’ Conferences of the Member States of the European Union, in October 1998 during the Austrian Presidency. A Steering Committee was established to assist in the preparations of the Bologna Forum, consisting of Directors-General of Higher Education of the following countries: Austria (Chair), Germany, Finland, and Italy, with representation from the French Ministry of Education and Rectors’ Conference (CPU) and from the UK. The Steering Committee has also functioned as a sounding board for the project and has provided validation of preliminary project results. The role of the Steering Committee in the follow-up process of the project is of vital importance. The Confederation and the Association of European Universities have participated in Steering Committee meetings, as have the two experts, appointed by the two organizations to undertake the data collection and comparative analyses and syntheses.
As coordinator of the project, the Confederation would like to thank the two experts, Ms. Jette KIRSTEIN and Dr. Guy HAUG for their invaluable and untiring efforts, the results of which are now available. The Confederation would also like to thank the Steering Committee members who have contributed with helpful validation and criticism. A special word of thanks is due to the organizations from whom important input has been obtained, in particular the national rectors’ conference secretariats, the EURYDICE Office and the ACA Secretariat in Brussels, ESIB (the National Unions of Students in Europe) and the NARICs throughout the EU and EEA countries. The project would not have been possible without the financial support provided by the European Commission, and the Confederation would like to thank the European Commission for its financial contribution as well as for contributions to the project in the form of publications, documentation material and helpful comments.
(NOT final version. The author reserves the right to change this document until its presentation to the meeting in Bologna on 18 June 1999)



The main purpose of this paper is to provide information and observations on the current structure, recent trends and possible avenues for change in the architecture of higher education systems in Europe. It should be seen both as a follow up document to the Sorbonne Declaration of May 1998 and an input to the Bologna meeting of ministers/governments and higher education representatives in June 1999.

A survey and discussion of the architecture of higher education systems covers by definition all the various types of higher education, even though some of the topics may be more specifically relevant for the sub-system of university education. While the focus is on member countries of the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) the overall perspective within which trends and issues emerge in higher education is in many respects that of Europe as a whole.

Given the scope and complexity of the spectrum of issues to be covered, this report will not deal with the following items, even though they are an important and integral part of the overall architecture of higher education in Europe:

- European directives setting out specific rules for the preparation of, and access to, certain professions;

- structure of the curricula leading to these professions in the European Union.

Within the framework as set out above, this paper will try

- to map main areas of convergence and divergence in the structure of the various systems and sub-systems of higher education in Europe,

- to identify significant trends in Europe and the global environment which may have an effect on these structures,

- and to indicate possible ways towards greater convergence and effectiveness in the future.


Even more systems than countries in Europe
One of the key conclusions coming out of the survey carried out by Jette Kirstein (cf Part II of this document) as well as of other sources is that the overall picture of studies, curricula and degrees is indeed extremely complex and varied, as a consequence of major differences in such key factors as:

- type, breadth and duration of secondary education, with obvious consequences concerning age and preparation for further studies;

- the existence or not of sub-systems of higher education, their respective role and size and the relationship between them, in particular possibilities to transfer from one to the other;

- access into higher education (from open choice to various forms of selection and numerus clausus in all or some sectors);

- study fees (from gratuity to differential or generalised systems of tuition fee);

- huge differences in the organisation of studies in terms of calendar (from annual courses to block modules), choice (varying from set curricula to nearly free choice), frequency and type of examinations (continuous examinations, final exams per credit, or only block examination after several semesters of study);

- and of course, the structure, duration, number and type of degrees that can be earned.
A major conclusion is that comparisons between degrees and degree structure made within such an environment can only be meaningful within certain limits. They become irrelevant if the various factors shaping their existence in a given national system are ignored. In the pages that follow, many comparisons will nonetheless be made, always with this fundamental remark in mind, even though it will not be repeated.
Whether officially unitary or binary, the architecture of national systems can be extremely complex, with up to 100 different academic qualifications and very many different curricula linked by a variety of “bridges”. It is important to point out in this respect that a potential European framework of qualifications cannot be less complicated than the most complicated of the national systems.

No convergence around a strict “3-5-8” model

The Sorbonne Declaration recommends that studies should be organised in an undergraduate cycle leading to a first qualification and a graduate cycle leading to a master or doctoral degree, but it does not provide an indication on the duration of these cycles. An extensive debate has nonetheless taken place about this issue, based on the assertion in the Attali report to the French government about the existence (or emergence) of a (single) European model of higher education based on a sequence of studies and degrees of 3-5-8 years. A model strictly following this pattern does not exist.

There is little convergence around a first degree after 3 years.

No one country in Europe has such a system across the board in all sectors of higher education or all disciplines.

In the UK, while most bachelor degrees indeed take 3 years to complete, there are many which take longer (typically 4 years), especially (but not only) courses involving a period of work-based learning (sandwich model) or integrated study abroad (e.g. in modern languages). Nearly all degrees are now “Honours” (as opposed to “ordinary”) degrees; the difference is neither in duration nor in a significantly different profile of the curriculum; honours degrees include a thesis and can only be achieved with certain grades (as opposed to a simple pass/fail system). In some fields such as engineering, curricula lead straight to a master degree (M.Eng) with no intermediary bachelor. In Scotland, the first degree normally takes 4 years to complete and is usually called a bachelor degree (but in some cases, a master degree).
In Denmark and Finland, bachelor courses last are 3 years but do not exist in all fields. In other countries with bachelor degrees, their duration also varies between 3 and 4 years, e.g. in Ireland, Malta, Iceland, as well as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Where bachelor studies are based on a credit system, students may influence the duration of their studies and finish in slightly less time than the normal duration of the curriculum, or extend their studies part time over a much longer period. The actual length of the programme is then best not expressed in terms of years or semesters, but in the number of credits that need to be acquired. With the development of part-time studies and lifelong learning, this is bound to become more prominent in the debate about the structure of qualifications at national and European level.
As can be seen from the tables prepared by Jette Kirstein there are numerous study programmes, both at universities and at other institutions of higher education leading to a first degree after 4 years. This is also the case in many countries not included in the tables, e.g. for most Licences in Switzerland.
A very obvious phenomenon is that the duration of first degree studies (whether leading to a bachelor or not) varies significantly in many countries depending on the discipline (not mentioning medical studies which are longer everywhere), e.g. in Sweden, the Netherlands or Germany. Engineering, law or teacher training studies tend to be different from other disciplines. Even in systems where bachelor degrees have been introduced in other topics, certain curricula in engineering and technology lead straight to the master level (e.g. in Denmark, Finland, UK).
Moreover, it should be remembered that in most countries (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, France, Greece and many others), there are huge differences between the official and the real duration of studies, with many students taking up to 7 years to complete a 4 or 5-year curriculum; comparisons based on the official duration of degrees and a possible alignment of systems on this basis would be meaningless if they were not combined with measures aimed at reducing the real duration to the theoretical duration of studies.
A final but very important observation about the first step in the 3-5-8 model is that it fails to pay attention to the large number of higher education students enrolled in short, sub-degrees studies of 1 or 2 years in various types of institutions, e.g. IUTs at French universities, Tecnico Superior in Spain or HND courses at British Colleges of Further Education. The relationship between these studies and bachelor/master courses should be seen as an integral part of the overall structure of higher education, especially in the perspective of the growing role for higher education in lifelong learning.

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