Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Bologna Declaration : critical notes - Part 3

Mobility of students

Employability, as the main outcome sought from HE in Europe under the Bologna Declaration, also drives its two objectives to create a standard system based on a set number of undergraduate and postgraduate cycles and of a prescribed minimum length and to incorporate a system of credits. It is suggested that the purpose of such objectives is to promote student mobility, making it easier for students graduating in one country to have their achievements recognised equally elsewhere in Europe.

While there is some benefit evident in helping graduates move easily throughout Europe on an equal basis, the reality is that the Declaration does not attempt to create a truly equal basis. For example, as the requirement is for degrees lasting a minimum of three years, students studying within national systems which adopt the shortest timescale for degree completion, are automatically put at an advantage as their qualifications are given equal relevance for employment as the longer courses. At the same time the universities in such countries benefit disproportionately in being able to attract more overseas students, not because they provide better education, but because they require less of a time commitment from students. Meanwhile the competition doctrine puts pressures on countries with a traditionally longer degree structure to adapt to the 3-year model to attract students, forcing an hegemony that reduces both student choice and university autonomy to determine the structure of learning. At the same time there is no restriction on universities charging ever increasing fees to students as is the case in Britain. This effectively can mean universities are free to charge a premium for ‘express’ courses to those who can afford to pay.

The mechanism of credits pushed by the Bologna Declaration to quantify study, including that not leading to degrees and time spent in the workplace, also erodes the value of certain qualifications. It basically ensures that students are able collate periods of study on a modular basis. This might work well in practical terms for many students, but is more suited to vocationally-oriented learning than social disciplines, as acquired knowledge is awarded on a fragmented and discontinuous basis with a strategic underlying motivation. This is particularly so in the case of credit earned for vocational training where the learning priorities rewarded are essentially those of employers not workers. Credits shift the emphasis onto the quantification of educational achievement as opposed to personal development and appreciation of a field of knowledge.

The detriment of such schemes is felt by those students who spend the longest time devoted to study and study the least economically-oriented disciplines as well as the universities which host them. Furthermore, instead of encouraging and enabling citizens to devote part of their lives to learning as an open, critical and unfinalised endeavour, under a credit system study becomes accessible for many through or between employment only.

The problem lies, for the large part, in the fact that the declaration is purposefully set out to make it easier for qualifications to be standardized as goods of consumption on a minimum basis, instead of making it easier for the working class to take time out from the labour and manage their lives more independently from the needs of the market. This time out would be devoted to learning for the sake of learning; learning for the sake of knowledge, as an intrinsic activity.

The declaration is certainly not, for instance, counterbalanced by an undertaking to ensure free access to HE for all, without economic barriers or imposed hegemonies. In this sense, the mobility promised is effectively on the condition of embracing the ideology of the free market, in a way that students see themselves as units of consumption, or as precarious unit of labour. Only those who can afford to stay out of employment for several years can hope to spend time learning for social and cultural reasons primarily – not ordinary workers.

The objectives of the Declaration overall seem to falsely represent a sort of safety net promising universal access to education, which will afford graduates social and economic mobility as a result. In reality access to education is becoming more and more expensive and the truth is that the declaration’s objectives aimed at mobility and employability also act as drivers to mask the erosion of the number of opportunities for diverse modes and foci of study. The point of such objectives is not really to increase opportunity to study, but to shift the emphasis in HE towards learning how to be effective in employment and adapting the self to priorities established in the free market, by profiteers of human labour.

It works out this way mainly because it is very difficult to trace and maintain a system of quality control in such a marketised system of HE. And if such systems of quality control are in place, surely they control people and not the standard of work; in fact quality, like education itself, is always undefined and as such, not possible to control except if the student is conceptualised in a particular manner. Neoliberalism has found it easy to conceptualised the student in a manner that those employable are the ones who have absorbed the doctrine of meritocracy, competition, performativity, productivity and the will of the free market to determine the human race.

The signatories of the Bologna Declaration seem to think that increased mobility of European citizens has to necessarily coincide with less diversity of the opportunities open to them. Instead of identifying and protecting the diversity of European systems to promote knowledge exchange, they aim for standardization. They combine the wilderness of the free market structure with quality control mechanisms. This means universities strategically setting the lowest available standards and functioning as a training service for industry, may be perversely perceived as ‘better’ or ‘more successful’ universities simply because of their skill as capitalist opportunists in exploiting and profiting from the possibilities of a postmodern market system of HE. Similarly, the students who pass through these ‘better’ universities, have their studies valorised above other graduates on no grounds more substantial than it is what the market allows.

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