The concretion of social relations

The Bologna reforms in Austria

The Bologna reforms reverse the achievements of Austrian universities policy of the 1970s, when higher education was made available at a mass level, write Martin Konecny and Hanna Lichtenberger. Just as Austria’s entry into the common market consolidated the neoliberal transformation of society, so its implementation of the Bologna reforms cedes mechanisms of national control to the supra-national level. In both cases, the result is the same: inequality and lack democratic accountability.

The protest movements in Austria and beyond singled out the Bologna Process for special criticism. In the main, it was treated purely as a higher education problem. The wider societal implications were largely ignored.

For example, the alternative to the neoliberal Bologna university that was invariably invoked was, at least implicitly, Humboldt’s concept of the university and its cultural ideal. It is equally significant that whenever demands relating to society as a whole came up for discussion, the objection was repeatedly raised by some of the protesters that we should be concerned only with finding concrete remedies for deficiencies in the university system and not with “making the world a better place”.

With the late development of Fordism in Austria from the 1970s onwards, if not before, a lack of skilled workers in the capitalist economy became apparent and was much deplored. Whereas the shortage of unskilled workers, which was becoming equally acute, was remedied by the mass “import” of migrant workers,1 the response to the scarcity of academically trained experts was a temporary widening of access to the universities. The concept of the elitist professorial university was making it harder to keep up with the rapid technical and economic development of Fordism. It should also be noted at this point that the move to the group university meant not only a change in the total student numbers but also a near doubling of the numbers of female students. Although gender imbalance as a whole was not corrected, since women were still not represented in higher academic positions such as professorships, the significant rise in numbers of female students is noteworthy. Whereas in 1960/61 there were 38 533 students, of which only 23 per cent were women, in the academic year 1980/1981 numbers had increased to 115 616, and the proportion of female students had risen to 39.66 per cent.2

The rise of the mass university is characterized, alongside the rise in the proportion of women, by two features. First, improved access to the university for broader sections of society: support for children from families with no previous contact with higher education was the stated aim of Social Democratic university policy. Second, a restructuring that involved the introduction of numerous university bodies with membership on a basis of parity. However, when the Social Democrats tried to reform the socially divisive multipartite school system, they were unable to overcome resistance from the middle classes. Despite everything, therefore, wider access to the universities was restricted to small sections of society, particularly the middle and lower-middle classes and the children of better-off farming families.

In contrast to German universities, where critical academics were systematically squeezed out of the universities,3 in Austria new departments were established, especially in the social sciences. These departments provided opportunities for critical research; this was where, for example, the foundations of feminist political science were laid, with feminist theory soon becoming an established branch of the critical social sciences. However the universities did not escape the effects of the developing crisis of Fordism. The university budget was not increased, despite the steadily rising student numbers that had resulted from widening access. The situation at the universities became steadily worse.4

At the end of the 1980s, Austria, like other countries, began to implement neoliberal policies. The privatization of previously state-owned businesses, the loosening of corporatist wage arrangements and the consequent rise of anomalous and insecure employment situations are all aspects of this trend. Despite the fact that it accelerated the crises of social democracy and the trades unions, the neoliberal reconstruction was driven forward by the Social Democrats. The other side of the coin was the dramatic rise of the extreme right under Jörg Haider, who filled the “populist gap”.5 The neoliberal reconstruction was further confirmed when Austria joined the European Union in 1995: national policies were now subjected to the neoliberal membership criteria of the common market and the scope for national economic and budgetary policy severely curtailed by the Maastricht convergence criteria for the Euro. A “new constitutionalism” emerged, in other words the establishment on a permanent basis of certain political paradigms by a supranational organization – the EU.6 Union membership was a major contributing factor in the shift of decision-making away from the legislative towards the executive state apparatus, in particular towards a strengthening of the finance ministry, a process that may also be seen as one aspect of “authoritarian statism”.7

The “Sorbonne Declaration” was signed by the education ministers of France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom on 25 May 1998, during Sorbonne University’s 800-year anniversary celebration in Paris. In the declaration, the four biggest states in the European Union agreed on the harmonization of the “architecture of the European higher education system” (i.e. the switch to a common system of bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate) and the facilitation of recognition of academic “performance”. Linked to this was the introduction of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) to promote student mobility. In its aims, the Sorbonne Declaration went considerably further towards the unification of European higher education and towards adapting to the Anglo-American tradition than stipulated by the Lisbon Convention of April 1997. The Lisbon Convention represented the first attempt at an agreement in the Council of Europe and UNESCO on the recognition of university qualifications in Europe.8 The conclusion of the Sorbonne Declaration suggests that it was more than merely a joint paper on the future of higher education lacking full binding force, but concealed wider aims: “We call on other Member States of the Union and other European countries to join us in this objective and on all European Universities to consolidate Europe’s standing in the world through continuously improved and updated education for its citizens.”9 The call by the four states was adopted by 29 other states, including Austria, albeit this time under the umbrella of the Bologna Process, a non-binding project that will be fully implemented by 2010.

The Bologna Declaration, like the Lisbon Agreement, is not a EU directive, a law or anything similar; it is an advisory paper for executives of national states. What should be stressed here is not only that the Bologna Process has never been put to the vote, but also what this development means for the individual states. They relinquish their power to make strategic decisions in higher education and with it their control of the ideological reproduction of the educated ruling classes, handing this over instead to a supranational, informal decision-making structure. The apparent reduction in the importance of the state apparatus in individual countries is paralleled by a corresponding increase in the importance of international structures. No new, self-sufficient state is created; rather, these international structures, along with the international state apparatus connected to them, acquire the typical functions of the modern state such as safeguarding of property relations. The task of the internationalized state apparatus is to “secure antagonistic social relations and make them permanent. The internationalization of the state is thus a project of the dominant power, and in particular of classes and class alliances, designed to ensure that their interests are served and, if possible, enhanced.”10

In his book State Theory, Nicos Poulantzas11 expounds the theory of the state as a material concretion of a power relation between classes and class fractions. As “relation”, the state safeguards the general interests of capital but not those of one single class fraction, and is an element of class struggles. Poulantzas’ perspective avoids seeing the state itself as the subject of processes of social transformation and instead directs attention towards the individual actors in these developments. The Bologna Process, which expands and concretizes the four-state Lisbon Convention, has since been implemented in 46 of the signatory states. The realization of the project looks the same in almost each, suggesting that the same interests are being served. Given that the Bologna Process is not a binding agreement and since the details of its implementation are left to the nation-states, it is clear that the while the strength of international institutions and regimes lies “in the discursive implementation of hegemonic projects”,12 the nation-state remains central to the implementation of the policies. The shift of decision-making processes onto transnational or supranational levels itself therefore represents a concretion of power relations, since the new levels of decision-making are not accessible to all actors in the same way.13

The three principal or overarching targets that the Bologna Process set itself were 1) the further promotion of student mobility, 2) the international competitiveness of the European university sector and, 3) the compatibility of higher education. Additional keywords are “lifelong learning”, “cooperative quality assurance” and “employability”. All conceal profound and radical changes. What, then, are the aims and the consequences of the Bologna Process?

In Austria, the implementation of the Bologna Process went hand in hand not only with the neoliberal reconstruction of the universities, but also with the welfare cuts, the casualization of work and the “de-democratization” of the political system overseen by the conservative/far-Right coalition under Wolfgang Schüssel. The introduction of the new architecture of higher education led to shorter university courses, which in turn had a number of effects. The curriculum was compressed and the old diploma course with a minimum length of four years was converted to a less intellectually rigorous three-year course. At the same time, both students and researchers found themselves with a significantly greater volume of work.14 The more intense nature of the work – or, to use the language of the Bologna Process, the increase in workload – is part of the neoliberal restructuring and the subjection of all areas of life to the logic of utilization. According to Klaus Pickshaus, “The fact that there has been a general rise in stress levels has to do with restructuring in the world of work. Under pressure from the shareholder-dominated short-term economy, work has become considerably more extensive and as well as more intensive.”15

Rivalry and competitive thinking are key aspects of neoliberal ideology and they form part of the Bologna Process. Thus, for example, the threat of quantitative or qualitative limitations in available courses is placing students wishing to pursue a master’s degree under enormous pressure from competitors. Collective, collaborative learning is becoming a rarity. Researchers are obliged to compete with each other in the areas of publication, citation, external funding, contracts and employment. In addition, the universities are in competition for the best rankings on dubious league tables. Research – if it is possible at all in the MA – is becoming a luxury practicable only for those who can find their way through the competitive maze. The BA, on the other hand, is becoming an inferior, mass-produced qualification designed to serve the needs of economic utilization under the banner of employability. The continuing de-democratization of society is manifesting itself in the universities. Whereas the mass university was still dominated by bodies with membership on a basis of parity, the post-Fordist university is controlled by professors and external personages from the world of politics and business, who base their decisions on the principle of cost-neutrality. In Austria, democracy was further undermined by the University Law of 2002, which accorded professors and university heads greater rights while permitting students only to sit on advisory committees. The ministry of science describes the University Law of 2002 as an “example of good practice” in the implementation of the Bologna Process.16

At no time in the past have universities stood apart from society. The ideal of education for its own sake was never more than an ideology at best; the truth is that education has always been involved in serving the needs of the reproduction of capitalist relations. The frequently voiced indignation of those who accuse universities of suddenly becoming subservient to “the economy” is without foundation to the extent that this is no new process introduced by neoliberalism. Universities have always been a part of the economic, ideological and political system. It is only with an understanding of higher education policy as part of social relations that criticism of the Bologna Process is possible.

It should be clear, then, that the battle against Bologna cannot be won in the universities alone. What is particularly needed is for groups of lower social status, all of whom in different ways have been affected by neoliberalism, to join together in a new anti-neoliberal “historic bloc” to fight for a social alternative.

Christof Parnreiter, Migration und Arbeitsteilung. AusländerInnenbeschäftigung in der Weltwirtschaftskrise, Promedia: Wien 1994, 116-146.

Hochschulstatistik, Wien: Statistik Austria 2009

Thomas Sablowski, "Die unternehmerische Hochschule und der Bildungsstreik", in: Sozialismus 1/2010, 9.

Eva Kraisky, Birgit Sauer, Feministische Standpunkte in der Politikwissenschaft. Eine Einführung, Frankfurt/Main, New York: Campus Fachbuch 1995.

Jörg Flecker, Sabine Kirschenhofer, Die populistische Lücke. Umbrüche in der Arbeitswelt und Aufstieg des Rechtspopulismus am Beispiel Österreichs, Berlin: edition sigma 2007, 47-51.

Stephan Gill, "European Governance and New Constitutionalism: Economic and Monetary Union and Alternatives to Disciplinary Neoliberalism in Europe", in: New Political Economy 3/1998, 5-26.

Nicos Poulantzas, Staatstheorie. Politischer Überbau, Ideologie, Autoritärer Etatismus, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag 2002 (French original 1977 ), 231-246.

See: Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region, Lisbon, 11.IV.1997.

Sorbonne Joint Declaration, Paris, the Sorbonne, May 25 1998.

Ulrich Brand, Christoph Görg, Markus Wissen, "Verdichtungen zweiter Ordnung. Die Internationalisierung des Staates aus einer neo-poulantzianischen Perspektive", in: Prokla 37(2) 2007: 222.

Poulantzas op. cit.

Brand et al. op. cit. 227.

Ibid. p. 230.

Ulf Banscherus, Annerose Gulbins, Klemens Himpele, Sonja Staack, Der Bologna-Prozess zwischen Anspruch und Wirklichkeit. Die europäischen Ziele und ihre Umsetzung in Deutschland. Eine Expertise im Auftrag der Max-Traeger-Stiftung, 2009, 27.

Klaus Pickshaus, "Stress", in: Hans-Jürgen Urban (ed.), ABC zum Neoliberalismus. Von "Agenda 2010" bis "Zumutbarkeit", Hamburg: VSA-Verlag 2006, 219.

Published 1 July 2010
Original in German
Translated by Gordon Wells
First published by Stefan Heissenberger, Viola Mark, Susanne Schramm, Peter Sniesko, Rahel Sophia Süß, "Uni Brennt. Grundsätzliches - Kritisches - Atmospherisches", Vienna-Berlin: Turia & Kant 2010

© Martin Konecny, Hanna Lichtenberger / Eurozine


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