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Bologna's blind alley

The uni's burning! Die Uni brennt! The slogan was everywhere in the German-speaking space last winter, as the protests at the University of Vienna and the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts set off a wave of similar strikes, first in Austria, in Graz, Linz, and Salzburg, then beyond: in Frankfurt (where the police removed students by force), Heidelberg, Marburg, Hamburg, Zürich... 2009/10 also saw students protesting at universities in Athens, Zagreb, Marseilles and London, and outside Europe in California, New York and Mexico City. The protests were an expression of wider discontent among students and university staff brewing in recent years: one thinks of the student protests against the Contrat première embauche in France in 2006 and against university reforms in Italy in 2008, and teacher-led protests against reforms, again in France, in the first half of 2009.

The bonfire of the universities

University strikes in 2009/10 coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the Bologna process. Read more on the debate enflaming (not only) Europe.
Symbolically enough, the Bologna Declaration of 1999 marked its ten-year anniversary on 12 March this year, with European education ministers of all 47 participating states signing the Budapest-Vienna Declaration that officially inaugurated the European Higher Education Area. The Bologna Process has become a central point of contention among those critical of the course higher education policy has been taking in recent years, with concerns focusing above all the "two cycle" system that in the name of "easily readable and comparable degrees" introduces new hierarchies into the university system and beyond.

By drawing together and translating articles published in the course of 2009 and 2010 by Eurozine partner journals and other publications, we aim to provide a survey of the sometimes highly complex debates on higher education in Europe and worldwide. Contributions from a variety of protagonists (students, university staff, academics), disciplines (sociology, philosophy, cultural policy) and national perspectives combine to form a detailed and occasionally contradictory analysis of the current crisis of the university and education in the wider sense.

We start back at the protests themselves, which have re-invigorated the potential for activism within the university and served as laboratories for ways of thinking about new forms of political participation. Remarkable has been the role of Web 2.0 technology in both the organization and expression of the protests: between 23 October to 31 December 2009, 95 743 tweets containing the terms "unibrennt" or "unsereuni" were sent from 8898 different Twitter accounts in the German-speaking space; while in Vienna a live stream broadcast from the occupied "Audimax" provided a virtual sense of "being there" and acted as a megaphone to the press and broader public. This earned the protests the disparaging title of the "Facebook Rebellion", but as Jana Herwig, Max Kossatz and Viola Mark write in their article, an over-emphasis on the medium of communication itself overlooks what it enables, namely new forms and a new degree of mobilization. Also writing from the frontline, Evan Calder Williams reflects on the protests at Californian universities last spring, proposing ways for collective resistance to the financialization of the university beyond revolution understood in a classical communist sense.

Turning to an analysis of the Bologna reforms, contributors are unanimous that the process they are associated with is one in which a narrowly instrumental understanding of education to mean economic utility becomes the norm. Aping the US model of collaboration between the academic and private sectors will undermine long-term scientific and ethical structures and could cause disciplines that are of no interest to the business world to atrophy and eventually disappear, writes Romanian academic Ioana Bot. Marion von Osten, meanwhile, makes the important point that responsibility for the interpretation and implementation of the Bologna reforms lies with the nation-states: nowhere, for example, does the original Bologna Declaration specify that the system of consecutive cycles is to be equated with the BA/MA. Instead, national governments have instrumentalized the process as a way of introducing cuts in education spending. In this kind of circular logic, neither national nor supra-national legislation bears ultimate weight. The result, von Osten argues, is that processes of exclusion and hierarchization, whose presence in the educational context reflects tendencies in the post-national European regime more generally, appear uncontrollable and inevitable.

Other authors suggest that in some cases, critique of Bologna and "the commodification of education" might mask institutional unwillingness to reform. This argument appears particularly telling in Romania, where academic complacency and political subordination is rife, writes Coreneliu Balan in a furious article. For Romania, the Bologna process contains a number of common sense suggestions that could bring improvements on several fronts. However, as long as the bureaucracy of a privatized university system resists any attempt to meddle with the status quo, an implementation of the reforms in a positive sense will be impossible.

Yves Lichtenberger, talking to Marc-Olivier Padis about last year's conflict over reforms of the French university system, makes a similar point. Resistance to plans to decentralize the university system has also contained elements of institutional will for self-preservation: while remote state control favoured opaque compromises, local control challenges long laid-down university habits. The new culture of assessment, often encouraging undesirable forms of competition, has been particularly resisted by humanities departments, which object to being judged on the criteria of the physical sciences. Yet the sense of having to defend a broad cultural education against business can be somewhat exaggerated and unrealistic, suggests Lichtenberger.

Also taking up the issue of institutional reform, Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues that the crisis of hegemony facing the contemporary university has been caused by a shift from the "university" to the "pluriversity" of knowledge. While the commercialization of scientific knowledge is one aspect of this change, the pluriversity of knowledge is also the product of confrontation with the knowledges of groups traditionally excluded from the university. Instead of resistance to reform in the name of autonomy and academic freedom, the university must engage in a radical internal restructuring. Only a counter-hegemonic process of educational globalization creating equality of access can restore legitimacy to the university, Santos argues.

Gesine Schwan also challenges fundamental assumptions from within the university, arguing that the distinction in German-language culture between education in the broad sense as "cultural formation" (Bildung) and in the narrow sense as "professional training" (Ausbildung) is no longer valid in a future marked by rapid technological change. Instead, she articulates a theory of education centred on the cognitive theoretical notion of knowledge as "reflection". Cognitive "multilingualism", Schwan argues, is the only way to prevent the specialization of knowledge narrowing our horizons to such an extent that the result is structural irresponsibility.

Switching from the philosophical to the national perspective, the contributions in the section "National debates" approach an overview of responses to Bologna in various regions of Europe. As seat of the traditional Humboldtian prohibition on the intrusion of commerce into academia, Germany has produced the strongest critique of the "capitalization" of higher education. Richard Münch explains how scientific and professional bodies acting on behalf of the German state have traditionally mediated between the academic and professional sectors in order to keep academia and the commercial sector separate. Now, however, independent accreditation agencies certify the new BA and MA courses (which in Germany and Austria have replaced the former Diplom and Magister across the board) according to market criteria. The result of the exposure of German universities to purely economic demands will be an increasing hierarchization of educational institutions, predicts Münch.

In France, there is less opposition to the implementation of Bologna per se than with chronic under-funding and the introduction of new assessment methods. In a detailed article, Françoise Benhamou recaps the background of the prolonged and explosive dispute over Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to overhaul France's public universities and points out one paradoxical result of the protests: that while joined to some extent by students, it remained predominantly a teachers' and researchers' strike and hit the financially worse-off students.

In the UK, Bologna is barely an issue, be it because the BA/MA system is already in place, providing the Anglo-Saxon model for the rest of Europe, or because of the structural weakening of universities and their potential to resist. Jeremy Gilbert anticipates that tuition fees will rise to even higher levels this year, burdening students with lifelong debt. Encouraged to see students as a source of income and hence job security, researchers will be disinclined to side with students, Gilbert warns. If Britain's residually elitist system continues in the direction of market conformity, he writes, what is offered under the guise of "university education" will in all but the most prestigious universities soon be no more than a form of tertiary training for the service, retail and media industries.

Such woes are all too familiar in the post-communist space. Almantas Samalavicius describes a situation in Lithuania where the Soviet understanding of the role of higher education has been reborn as a blind drive towards commercial utility. The hard sciences have won the struggle over state funding at the expense of the humanities, while falling standards have caused an ongoing brain-drain to the West. Recent reforms indicate that the only remedy on offer is based on the logic of the market, as Lithuanian universities steadily go the way of the rest of "common property" after independence.

Turning to Russia, Alexander Bikbov examines how the deregulation of the 1990s profited a burgeoning university executive that re-established itself as a faction of the new Russian bourgeoisie. Today, however, a new struggle for educational control is underway between a "black", private model and a centralized and seemingly more transparent state model. Yet the two are but different expressions of the same thing, writes Bikbov: spontaneous capitalist neoconservatism. What's more, he argues, governments elsewhere in Europe look to the Russian state as a successful example of how to extract profit from the public university. The Putinization of the European university? A worrying prospect indeed.



Published 2010-07-01

Original in English
© Eurozine

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