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The Garbage of the Garbage

The Second-Level Sub-Optimal Policy Process in European Higher Education
Au delà de l’« anarchie organisée ». Effets secondaires d’une politique européenne de “l’à peu près” dans l’enseignement supérieur
Voldemar Tomusk
p. 21-41


Cet article soutient que, bien que présenté comme une initiative systématique de réforme de l’enseignement supérieur en Europe visant la convergence des structures d’enseignement supérieur, le processus de Bologne et l’impact attendu sur l’enseignement supérieur n’ont pas encore été discutés et validés. Le système européen d’enseignement supérieur, par des réformes décalées aux résultats non probants, cherche à résoudre les problèmes politiques et économiques à l’échelle nationale et européenne. Une question majeure qui domine le processus est l’absence d’un mandat démocratique délégué à un organisme au niveau européen pour mener une réforme politique de l’enseignement supérieur. Alors que la Commission des Communautés européennes a joué un rôle de premier plan dans le processus de Bologne, l’absence d’un mandat légitime pour ce faire l’a amenée à investir en priorité dans l’établissement de sa propre autorité de leader européen de l’enseignement supérieur dans tous les sens du terme.

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« Since I am no philosopher, I’m not going to
explore at just which point enlightened
self-interest crosses the line into corruption. »
Harold Lewis (2010), Emeritus Professor of Physics
University of California, Santa Barbara

1For better or for worse, for good or evil reasons, the Bologna Process is often being seen as the higher education project of the European Union, closely connected to the advances in European integration over the past two decades. While the so called Bologna reforms, aiming at the convergence of higher education structures across Europe, are often presented as a part of the European modernization agenda in the context of the Lisbon and Lisbon-2 programs for economic competitiveness, the current pre- or non-modern situation of Europe and its universities is not obvious. Effectively, the Process operates on several levels. On the official level of political declarations it is about celebrating the greatness of the great European higher education while suggesting a few adjustments. In the Brussels’ backrooms, a significant sense of unease is perceptible regarding Europe’s low economic Competitiveness and the responsibility of universities (see e.g. Barroso, 2005). Mobilizing Europe’s universities to support more vigorously its economic competitiveness agenda is perhaps being understood as modernising them. As the economic contribution of universities correlates with the level of funding available to them, which is considerably lower in Europe than in the US (Barroso, 2005), modernity is unsurprisingly measured in some EU policy circles in currency units – richer means more modern. Modernizing European universities without increasing their public funding is, however, a particularly tricky task the European Commission has tried over the past decade to accomplish with the help of the Bologna Process.

2A further complication is that the European Union and its agencies do not have a legal mandate in the area of higher education, so that even performing noble tasks such as for example making European universities rich by means of cutting their public funding, so that they would have more immediate reasons to raise funds from private sources, becomes painfully difficult and requires skillful political manipulation (see e.g. Tomusk, 2011). On other levels – participating countries, agencies, universities, consultancies and other service providers – the range of problems to which the Bologna Process is expected to attend is wide, often only indirectly related to higher education and scholarship.

  • 1Personal communication by Mrs. Anne Lonsdale, Acting Provost of the Nazarbaev University, Astana, (...)

3Agreeing on what problem the Bologna Process is expected to solve in European higher education is not the only difficulty the Process is facing, although it is the central one. Equally problematic is the lack of democratically mandated body and of resources to tackle the perceived problems. Finally, on top of all these problems, several competing definitions of Europe are involved – is it the European Union, the geographical Europe or a cultural one as defined by the signatory list of the European Cultural Convention. Kazakhstan’s recent joining of the European Cultural Convention and of the European Higher Education Area illustrates nicely how even geography can be shaped by the forces of persuasion, political and possibly other. Including in cultural Europe and the European Area of Higher Education a country which still practices censoring foreign, notably European and US, academic literature on the grounds of political suitability, as Kazakhstan does1, stretches the very meaning of Europe well beyond the limits it has become understood since the World War II.

4There is a recent school of thought in Europe that allows solving a wide range of policy problems by means of introducing high sounding though empty verbal constructs, such as for example the Open Method of Coordination (OMD), as a connection between problems and solutions of a particular expert’s choice. A verbal interface devoid of content such as OMD (see e.g. Gornitzka 2006a, 2007) allows offering easily available solutions to real or imaginary problems. Some of the experts diagnosing the situation with the help of such instruments may be prompt to interpret situations in a manner that would allow them to step in with their own standard solutions.

5Let us take as an example a hypothetical European organization (let us call it as a matter of convenience “Council of Europe”), with some expertise in an imaginary area related to higher learning, for example developing “qualification frameworks”. One would imagine that with a large-scale higher education reform initiative on the way in Europe, this hypothetical agency would be interested in defining higher education problems in a manner that would allow it offering the qualification frameworks as a solution to those problems in exchange of material and reputational resources. Exchange of the proverbial snake oil for cash and glory does not, however, constitute the final outcome of the process. The final systemic outcome would be the centralization and bureaucratization of European higher education, vocationalizing the universities and ultimately subjecting individual lives to bureaucratic controls from birth to death. Loading urgent problems such as the perceived disconnect between higher education and the world of work, on easily available reductionist solutions may have far reaching side effects. While the requirement to describe life experience in terms of accumulation of easily describable competencies (as an example of such reductionism see Bergan, 2007) may well serve the interests of the consultancy industry involved in making the initial connection, one should also remain aware of the risk of this leading towards a society of totalitarian control.

6The European higher education project does not, however, follow precisely the classic garbage can model as described by Cohen et alii (1972: 2):

« From this point of view, an organization is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work ».

7While we see certain higher education policies emerging from the Bologna Process, and even the architecture of a European higher education system being developed and new power centers emerging, these do not appear as solutions to real or even imagined problems in higher education. European higher education policy represents a second level sub-optimality, emerging in the form of unintended consequences of applying the garbage can problem solving strategy in solving economic and political problems in European countries and their Union. This, as I would say, is the garbage of the garbage.

A Metaphysical Inquiry into the Existence of the Process

8By the time of completing this article in October 2010, the Bologna Process is more than eleven years old and yet the status of the Process is not entirely clear. The adoption of the Budapest-Vienna Declaration on 12 March 2010 seems to have completed the process of creating the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) as suggested by its opening declaration:

« We, the Ministers responsible for higher education in the countries participating in the Bologna Process, met in Budapest and Vienna on March 11 and 12, 2010 to launch [my italics V.T.] the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), as envisaged in the Bologna Declaration of 1999 » (Declaration 2010).

  • 2For example the European student organizations, deeply frustrated by the possible introduction of (...)

9In that sense the logic of the Process follows from the 1999 Bologna Declaration to the 2010 Budapest-Vienna Declaration, while the communiqués of the bi-annual ministerial conferences – carefully crafted mostly self-congratulatory messages – mobilize the participating countries to implement the ever expanding lists of action lines and allow some of the involved parties to voice their concerns2.

10The Budapest-Vienna Declaration of 12 March 2010 “launches” the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) as if the goal established in 1999 has been reached. Reading the original Bologna Declaration from that perspective leaves one confused to a degree, as the latter document uses four different terms describing its expected outcome with regard to EHEA. These are the creation, establishing, constructing and consolidating the European Higher Education Areas (Declaration 1999). Metaphysical debates as to whether a non-existing object (EHEA) could be meaningfully consolidated (in case it did not exist before), or an existing object (the same) “launched” a decade later (in case it did already exist) carries little value for our purposes. The documents marking the course of the Bologna Process offer only limited internal consistency. The vagueness of the terminology in the Bologna Declaration would suggest that for its authors the ontological aspects of the EHEA did not carry any particular importance. What were perhaps more important were the actual actions to be initiated as a result of joining the Declaration. However, as the outcomes of the agreed upon actions had remained at best mixed, the final Declaration turned all of a sudden to ontology, declaring formally the birth of the EHEA. Issuing such a birth certificate seems quite redundant. The 1988 Magna Charta offers the strongest possible evidence that European Higher Education Area has been a reality for quite some time – nine hundred or so years. The wording of the Budapest-Vienna Declaration allows, however, teasing achievement out of a relatively uneasy situation of mixed outcomes and unreliable data (Tomusk, forthcoming).

11Following the proposed logic, the European Higher Education Area is now up and running (if one may say so), while the agenda set for the next decade (Declaration 2010) builds on the EHEA as an arguably new reality in European Higher Education. This reality could be seen as the European higher education system, following the 1998 Sorbonne Declaration’s suggestion (Declaration 1998).

12The real life is less logical, less perfect and more complex than the above would suggest. Bologna Process emerges as a result of complex interaction of interests and policies of a number of stakeholders. Their list reaches well beyond the group of 47 signatory countries of the Bologna Declaration and the Bologna Follow-Up Group that involves a number of organizations, such as for example the European Student Union and the European Commission. The larger force shaping European higher education also includes various expert groups that seem to have a significant say on the action lines so that a market for their own services could be created. In 2010 it is increasingly unclear as to what exactly the Bologna Process/EHEA action lines are. As Deca (2010) has tried to demonstrate by tracking the recent changes in the EHEA agenda, the picture has grown increasingly confusing even since 2007. It is difficult to identify the remaining significance, if any, of the initial six action lines the 29 signatories committed to in 1999, but it is also unclear as to who exactly is setting the ever changing agenda and to what expected effect (Figure 1). Action lines/Objectives appear and disappear for little reason made known.

Figure 1: Evolution of the EHEA agenda in 2007-2012 according to Deca (2010)

Figure 1: Evolution of the EHEA agenda in 2007-2012 according to Deca (2010)

13While a be made that the Bologna Process ended in March 2010, there could be a little difficulty with such an argument. Some governments and other parties involved have made major political and reputational investments into the Process and may wish to capitalize further on that. For many governments in Central and Eastern Europe joining the Bologna Process signifies more than merely cooperating in a European higher education project. It is often presented as a demonstration of the high intellectual standing of the entire country or even its acceptance to “West”. For a country such as for example Kazakhstan which joined the Bologna Process on the very last day of its existence on 12 March 2010, “Bologna” signifies the decade long ambitions of President Nazarbaev, in which significant resources had been mobilized. For an autocratic head of state with certain intellectual ambition a result like this counts more as a monument than the golden statue of the eternal leader of some other country with comparable political traditions. It is highly likely that such countries and individuals need the Process in order to make the maximum political profit out of it. In that context it appears almost irrelevant that the level of actual implementation of the Bologna Process action lines remains largely unknown. One may also suggest that if indeed the existence of the European Higher Education Area could be judged on the grounds of the level of convergence of higher education structures in Europe as outlined in the Bologna Declaration, the existence of the EHEA remains a fiction and the Budapest-Vienna Declaration a political statement devoid of further substantive content. In that sense too the Process remains far from the completed.

14Adopting the Budapest-Vienna Declaration allows, however, to depart from the original Bologna Declaration’s agenda and perhaps move in a somewhat more realistic direction. In that sense the relatively limited meaning of the notion of the EHEA being launched is a small worry. The world is after all full of meaningless acronyms. One may assume, however, that withering away of the Bologna Process will be slow and not entirely painless because of the continuing need of some of the participants to refer to the Bologna Process as something as eternal as their own presidencies. It is also at least theoretically conceivable that some of the participating countries may in earnest wish to implement the action lines listed in the Bologna Declaration, instead of switching to a different agenda every few years and leaving behind universities buried under the rubble of incomplete and mostly meaningless reforms.

Bologna Process and European Integration

15Understanding the Bologna Process as a European higher education project requires defining “Europe”. As it was suggested above, Europe in the context of Bologna Process often assumes the meaning of the European Union. Research on the Bologna Process is largely EU-centered, paying little if any attention to the reform needs and higher education realities in the 20 non-EU EHEA countries. For the EU part of EHEA this appears as a continuation of the decades-long comparative higher education and policy research traditions focusing primarily on what used to be Western Europe. For the non-EU part it is related to lack of such research traditions and public discussions, leading to a relatively marginal role of the non-EU countries in Bologna Process and the weakness of their voices within it.

16It is not only the ignorance from the one side and weakness from the other that EU-center the Bologna Process. Countries with a prospect of EU accession, such as several of the countries of former Yugoslavia, consciously assume an EU-centric position in Bologna discussions that gives them a rare opportunity to demonstrate themselves as being well on their way to that exclusive membership. For many European countries outside the cold-warWest, participation in the Bologna Process has been one of the memberships assumed to be leading to a full EU membership as the final goal of the post-communist transition. As the example of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Carter, 2006) suggest, the symbolic political value of such memberships may greatly outweigh any reform content they may or may not carry.

17While some countries, notably Croatia, FYR Macedonia and Serbia, participation in the EHEA constitutes a step towards the EU membership, others perceive it as an instrument of positioning themselves vis-à-vis EU’s economic resources. Russia serves as an excellent example here (Tomusk, 2006). Others, such as for example Kazakhstan, may see it as an additional source of legitimacy to their political regimes or practices. While each of these countries have been driven by different motives in their joining the Bologna Process and EHEA, these motives as a rule have not been related to perceived needs for higher education reforms. Instead it is the vaguely defined European higher education project that offers a space for solving many other problems, from the lack of political legitimacy to unruly academics and universities not willing to follow government orders.

18However, once a country has joined the Process and accepted certain commitments, the implementation of agreed agenda should follow so that the country’s reputation would not suffer too much of a damage. That leads to a half-hearted implementation of reform agendas not understood and not thought through, imported for entirely different reasons. Nonetheless, such reforms have an effect on local higher education systems. The outcome of that is likely to represent, as suggested above, a second-level sub-optimality from the point of view of the actual reform needs of each particular higher education system. In post-state socialist countries of Central East Europe where an approach was taken in the early 1990s towards “Westernization” of curricula and teaching methods, the Bologna Process replaced the reform agenda with converging higher education structures – an obviously inadequate move in the context of the local reform needs. In Norway, however, as Gornitzka (2006b) reports, Bologna Process was hijacked by local policy entrepreneurs to enforce the ongoing “Quality Reform”.

19Focusing on the Bologna Process as an EU internal project still leaves one with several unanswered questions. Depending on our understanding of the nature of the European Union, the Process may gain different meanings. Bowens, Curtin and ‘t Hart (2010) identify three competing ways to see the EU – as (i) an intergovernmental bargaining arena; (ii) a supranational (federal) polity; or (iii) a regulatory regime.

20Seeing the EU as a regulatory regime would lead to an approach premised on the idea of EU and the Bologna Process constituting particular problem solving devices. However, while there has been some agreement on what problems EU might offer solutions to, such as a long history of wars in Europe or its recent declining economic competitiveness, a degree of confusion surrounds the list of possible problems to which the Bologna Process is expected to respond. From the perspective of the European Commission as exemplified for example by Barroso (2005) funding is the central issue – European universities are underfunded in relative terms in comparison to their US counterparts. Moreover, as the funding from private sources to higher education is considerably lower in Europe than in the US, an increase in private funding through forcing universities to enter the market place is seen as a solution. The Bologna Process, however, has not been a receptive forum to such messages. European students in particular have challenged in the strongest possible terms suggestions to increase private, in particular students’, economic contributions to higher education.

21A somewhat more intriguing one is the problem which French government sought to resolve by initiating the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998, leading to the Bologna Declaration a year later. The so-called Attali report (Attali J. et al., 1998) recommended to re-organize the rather un-readable French system of higher education degrees – a suggestion which the French academia did not feel much of a sympathy towards. To overcome the internal resistance, as Massen and Musselin (2009) argue, the French minister of education needed a massive external force to put the blame on. France was one of the four countries initiating the European higher education project known as the EHEA in order to have an agent that could be used as a whip against its own academics and universities resisting reforms towards rationalizing the system. In a way, the French ministry of education resorted to the “bad cop – good cop” game as known from the old bad police movies of Hollywood. Perhaps not the favorite genre in France.

22However, in order to have a cop bad, threatening and convincing enough to be taken seriously, an external force of some serious standing was needed. France needed Europe. In fact the French minister of education initiating the Sorbonne declaration was ready to forgo some of its nation’s sovereignty to have that supranational power in place. That leads us to the next interpretation of the EU.

23EU as a supranational polity follows the age-old idea of the United States of Europe – Europe as a federal state structure. As will be discussed later, while a federal state structure represents for top European activists a logical conclusion of the integration project, many of the European nation states have been guarding their sovereignty rather jealously. One of the areas many states have looked most carefully after is higher education – as the arena of the reproduction of national culture and identity. It is therefore quite surprising that an explicit reference to the European higher education system was made in the Sorbonne declaration, playing it right to the hands of the European Commission whose such intentions had up to that point been repeatedly defeated.

24A European system of higher education, even if called EHEA, is likely to fulfill different political, cultural and economic functions from those of the member states and follow a distinct logic. The European system of higher education in that sense is clearly carrying the ambition to take over the functions of cultural and identity formation from the national systems of higher education. Signs for such ambitions exist since the earlier student exchange programs in the 1970s.

25A rather extensive discussion document prepared by the European Commission in 1991 “Memorandum on Higher Education in the Community” (Commission, 1991: 41) outlines a distinct “European dimension in higher education” that includes items serving the needs of the emerging European polity and public sphere, such as “Europe in the curriculum”, “the central role of language” and “training of teachers” (p. 41). The autonomous cultural mission of European universities particularly stressed in the 1988 Magna Charta Universitatum has, however, found its undignified burial site in the Bologna Process, which makes it plain obvious that culture is to be sold (Tomusk, 2004). While the Bologna Process strengthened significantly the EU’s role in European higher education as a regulator, the shift from the cultural to the economic agenda tended to sacrifice some of the integration needs to hopes for immediate economic benefits, which, as one can now say, have not materialized. As far as the needs of the supranational European polity are concerned, the European higher education project needs to be re-launched. The European Commission’s role as the manipulator of the Bologna Process from behind the scenes may not necessarily represent a sufficient level of legitimacy to allow translating the Bologna Process’s experience into an EU higher education policy.

26The EU as an international organization stresses the leading role of the nation-states in Europe that merely delegate certain functions to the EU. It is essentially the European Council that stresses this international organization face of the EU, while the European Parliament and European Commission demonstrate the supranational polity aspects. It is perhaps important to note that from the EU side it is the Commission – the supranational executive – who has been playing a strong role in the Bologna Process, while the Council’s unanimous consent to delegate higher education policy to the Community level is missing. As will be discussed later in this article, the legal grounds for the Commission to engage in carving out a common European higher education policy appear rather shaky.

27Having said that, the Bologna Declaration and the Budapest-Vienna Declaration are instruments of international law – non-binding intergovernmental soft-law instruments – letters of joint intentions. It should, however, be noted that the inter-governmental nature of the Bologna Process and the EHEA reaches well beyond the EU, so that the internationality here carries a different meaning from the internationality within the EU as expressed for example in the acts of the European Council.

28To gain a better understanding of the EU role in the Bologna Process and its own problems, a closer look must be taken at the legal difficulties the EU faces in playing a more vigorous role in higher education. From the EU’s perspective, the lack of a treaty-based mandate in higher education is a problem that seriously inhibits further European integration. This is exactly the problem the European Commission has been working on by getting involved in the Bologna Process – establishing itself as a legitimate actor in European higher education, if not de jure then at least de facto.

29The Commission’s manipulations – the use of political power and EU’s budgetary resources – to carve out a new policy area for the EU may prove insufficient for member states to delegate any real authority regarding higher education to the Community level. Chris Patten (2010), a former European Commissioner, described the method by which the Commission has been expanding its mandate as “to play ’grandmother’s footsteps”:

« Take a political step forward, and if the electorate does not notice then take the ground gained as the starting point for the next advance. This discredits the EU, and gives voters the impression that it is an elitist conspiracy ».

Legality of the EU’s involvement in Higher Education

30Two grand old men of European higher education policy commentary recently published a statement, which we would – if it were produced by their junior colleagues – describe as somewhat inadequate. Obviously, the unwritten rules of the academic food-chain do not allow us mobilizing such verbal instruments against sharks, lions or just mandarins of the academia. Instead, for the purposes of the written records we suggest that Amaral’s and Neave’s (2009: 89) point is interesting, yet incomplete:

« […] the EC, following the Gravier Judgement of 1985, now possessed the legal basis to extend its oversight directly into higher education…, though whether member states were ready to recognize the Community’s “right to bite” into the area of higher education remained – as it does still today – ambiguous, obscure, and delicate in the extreme ».

31Close reading of Amaral’s and Neave’s statement suggests that while it is an established fact that since 1985 the European Community (later the European Union) had a legal basis for the oversight into higher education, some of the member states (although we do not know how many among the current 27 EU members) express reluctance recognizing it fully. This would perhaps suggest that at least some of the EU member states are behaving unreasonably or are just not well informed regarding the existing EU legislation.

32Such an interpretation, I would suggest, is not correct. It is not that any EU member state questioning the legal grounds of the EU involvement in higher education is particularly ill informed or ill behaved. It may instead indeed be the case that Amaral, Neave and other commentators as well as holders of various EU bureaus present a fragile opinion as a legal fact. Amaral and Neave suggest that a particular legal fact has allowed the EU to launch large-scale programs in higher education, such as ERASMUS and COMMETT (ibid.). I tend to think that skillful holders of various EU offices have been able to build large-scale programs on a legal ground, fragility of which Amaral and Neave do not fully recognize.

33While Amaral and Neave make a highly authoritative statement regarding the legality of the EU higher education programs, other equally authoritative statements suggest the opposite. Maassen and Musselin (2009: 10) declare for instance that « Despite the lack of a formal legal basis there is in general acceptance of an increasing governance role for the commission in higher education ». Amaral and Neave talk about EU’s « oversight […] into higher education », Maassen and Musselin suggest that the EU’s executive arm – the European Commission – is playing an increasing governance role in higher education, a somewhat stronger concept than oversight.

34Be it as it may with the technical nuances, Maassen and Musselin basically state that while the EU does not have a legal basis for its role in higher education governance, member states have de facto accepted it. This statement is in opposition to Amaral’s and Neave’s view that while EU has a legal basis for doing so, member states have a problem with it. Such rift in the views of top European higher education policy experts is inspiring us to look further into the matter, and what we see is equally intriguing.

35Amaral and Neave refer to the Gravier Judgment. This is the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) ruling in the case 293/83 Françoise Gravier v. City of Liège from 13 February 1985. In this case a French citizen Françoise Gravier studying strip cartoon art full time at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Liège

« claimed that the City of Liège should be prohibited from requiring her to pay a fee called the “minerval” (enrolment fee) which students of Belgian nationality are not required to pay » (ECJ, 1988).

36The ECJ based its ruling on two articles of the EEC Treaty of Rome – Art 7 and Art 128. Art 7 prohibiting discrimination on grounds of nationality, while:

« Article 128 of the Treaty provides that the Council is to lay down general principles for implementing common vocational training policy capable of contributing to the harmonious development both of the national economies and of the common market » (ibid.).

37The ECJ ruled that Gravier’s case fell under the EEC treaty for sole the reason that her higher education studies in strip cartoon art could be seen as vocational training:

« Any form of education which prepares for a qualification for a particular profession, trade or employment or which provides the necessary skills for such a profession, trade or employment is vocational training, whatever the age and the level of training of the pupils or students, even if the training programme includes an element of general education. The term “vocational training” therefore includes courses in strip cartoon art provided by an institution of higher art education » (ibid.).

38Therefore, as ECJ ruled higher education studies in strip cartoon art constituted a form of vocational training and therefore fell under the Treaty. ECJ ruled:

« The imposition on students who are nationals of other Member States of a charge, a registration fee or the so-called “minerval” as a condition of access to vocational training, where the same fee is not imposed on students who are nationals of the host Member State, constitutes discrimination on grounds of nationality contrary to Article 7 of the Treaty » (ibid.).

39At the same time the notion of vocational training was reinterpreted:

« The term “vocational training” includes courses in strip cartoon art provided by an institution of higher art education where that institution prepares students for a qualification for a particular profession, trade or employment or provides them with the skills necessary for such a profession, trade or employment » (ibid.).

40Another similar case, which is sometimes being referred to in arguments made to the effect of the EC’s competence being extended to higher education is that of Blaizot v. University of Liège, the ECJ case 24/86 (ECJ 1985, see also de Wit, Verhoeven 2001). This case is also related to a French higher education student being charged with a fee in a Belgian university. The argumentation of the ruling is similar, although in this case the student studied veterinary medicine. These two cases fundamentally constitute the legal ground on which EU higher education initiatives rely. They have, however, been reinterpreted in a manner that allows seeing all higher education as some kind of vocational training. Such a wide interpretation has constituted a concern for some of the EU member states that see EU mandate creeping well beyond the Treaty provisions. The European Court of Justice seems to have adopted an ideological approach to making justice in Europe, its rulings being less driven by the ideas of justice than the interests of a particular vision of the European integration – federalism. Perhaps the ECJ is playing grandmother’s footsteps along with the European Commission.

41One could argue that what Amaral and Neave (2009: 89) refer to as the EC « legal teeth » are mere baby teeth. EU member states can follow the Commission’s lead in higher education as long as the latter is able to convince the former that this falls under the vocational training provisions of the Treaty. It is worth noting that even the Lisbon Treaty has not expanded EU competences into higher education. The Community’s “right to bite” remains indeed “delicate in the extreme”. It is not because the member states are uninformed or behave unreasonably. It is because EU does not have any competence in higher education provided by the Treaty. What, however, Maassen’s and Musselin’s statement suggests is that despite the lack of a formal Treaty basis, EU has succeeded reinterpreting the meaning of vocational training to the extent that the member states allow it a much greater role in higher education than one would expect seeing merely on the grounds of the Treaty. Recent Commission’s discussion paper on Lisbon 2 2020 agenda for example does no longer reach universities through vocational training, but addresses them directly:

« Europe has some of the best universities in the world. But our ambition should be to have many more and turn them into a true engine for knowledge and growth. This will not only require investment but also reforms and where necessary consolidation, co-operation, including with business, and a more open attitude to change. To assist in the change, European Universities should be benchmarked against the best universities of the world » (Commission 2009: 5).

42I will not dwell into deconstructing this statement. Needless to say, it reaches considerably further into higher education policy than the EU’ vocational training mandate would suggest. It indeed argues for deep structural changes, including formal and official ranking of European universities, as the EU commissioner has previously suggested (Tomusk, forthcoming). The interesting question concerns the manner in which the EU, particularly its Commission has been able to stretch the ECJ rulings, and together with these, its own mandate to the extent that it is able to make such statements and, as one should indeed say – get away with it?

43This, one may think, constitutes a skillful manipulation with favorable ECJ rulings, funds and political influence. But it has also led to vocationalizing European higher education policy to the point that it may threaten another of the EU’s higher education policy goals – competitiveness against the US higher education. After all, the EU does not intend to compete against the US community colleges, but against its top research universities. However, to justify its engagement, the European Commission has been systematically stressing the vocational mission of higher education, focusing on issues such as the introduction of the qualifications frameworks through the Bologna Process.

44There is, as there always should be, a “third way” approach to the issue. Garben in his recent paper argues that not only does the EU have a mandate to initiate a Union level higher education reform initiative such as the Bologna process, it has an obligation to do so. This, however, Garben argues, stems neither from Art 7 (about discriminations), nor from Art 128 (about vocational training), but from Art 10 (Garben, 2008) that concerns building a common market. It is, however, a rare position, which is not likely to gain much popularity among European academic communities. It leads to a rather interesting conclusion that all EU member states plus the European Commission have effectively conspired against the EU by virtue of initiating the Bologna Process as an intergovernmental initiative instead of a strictly EU initiative that could under Art 10 be launched by adopting a “Bologna Directive” by the Council of the European Union, instead of signing an international letter of intent – the Bologna Declaration – by 29 ministers of Education, 14 of whom did not belong to the EU at the time of signing the document in 1999.

45This is indeed an intriguing suggestion, although purely theoretical. In reality, given the fragility of the EU position in higher education such an instrument could hardly ever been adopted. Being aware of that, the need for an external bad cop by some governments offered itself as a welcome opportunity to the Commission to proceed with its “creeping competence” (Amaral & Neave, 2009).

46While the French need for an external policy force opened the door for the EU to enter the field of European higher education policy in a more determined manner, it needed to support it with politically correct rhetoric and attractive agenda. This was provided by the EU economic competitiveness agenda. A connection was thus made between the Bologna Process and the EU’s Lisbon agenda of making Europe by 2010 « the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion » (Council, 2000).

47Historian Tony Judt (1996: 115) draws historical parallels to the EU:

« The Soviet Union once attracted many western intellectuals as a promising combination of philosophical ambition and administrative power, and “Europe” has some of the same seductive appeal. For its admirers, as for many politicians and businessmen in the advanced regions of western and central Europe, the “Union” is the latest heir to enlightened despotism of the last great reforming era before the coming of national states. For what is “Brussels” after all if not renewed attempt to achieve that ideal of efficient, universal administration, shorn of particularisms and driven by rational calculation and the rule of law, which the great monarchs Catherine, Frederick, Maria Theresa and Joseph II strove to institute in their ramshackle lands? ».

48The way the Commission has been making the case for its plans for European higher education may look not so much as if Europe is competing against the United Sates of America, as often suggested in plans for increased economic competitiveness, but rather that in some respects it follows the model of Singapore:

« The responsibility of the government is therefore a largely technical one of delivering the good life, in return for the endorsement of the electorate. […] Democracy has been shifted away from any liberal assumptions, without apologies, from representation to trusteeship, from individual rights to collective wellbeing. This is what it boils down to » (Kampfner, 2010: 30).

49Kampfner (2010: 38) offers a sobering conclusion to those wishing to follow that model:

« A modern form of authoritarianism, quite distinct from Soviet Communism, Maoism or Fascism, is being born. It is providing a modicum of a good life, and a quiet life, the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain ».

50Where exactly does the EU fall in comparison with Soviet Communism and other enlightened and unenlightened forms of autocracy goes beyond the purpose of this article. It looks, however, as if from the EU perspective thinking less and responding more vigorously to its plans would not necessarily be such a bad idea. Perhaps a pact could be conceivable in Europe whereby the European public might give up some of its democratic rights in exchange of economic and social benefits as for example those offered in the Lisbon Agenda or, perhaps in its latest incarnation Lisbon 2: « a new sustainable social market economy, a smarter, greener economy, where our prosperity will come from innovation and from using resources better, and where the key input will be knowledge » (Commission 2009: 2). Perhaps there would be a way to interpret the Lisbon Agenda as a brain anaesthetic of a particular kind.

51Such a pact is obviously conceivable as the example of Singapore suggests, and European public should feel free making such a choice if they wish so. The only concern one may have here is that the above-mentioned enlightened European administrators may not necessarily be up to the level of delivering their part of the pact – providing European citizens with material welfare in exchange of their silence on many matters, including those related to the “creeping competence” (Amaral & Neave, 2009) beyond the limits set by the treaties. Such a prospect might justify remembering George Orwell – « During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act » (quoted in Walker, 2000) and inviting European academics to such acts. A few more initiatives like the Bologna Process would have little left of the 900 years of traditions of higher learning in Europe, sacrificing the institution of European university to short-term political interests of governments and international organizations, consultants’ needs to make a living and career and retirement prospects of high officials.

52A decade long acting in the leading role of the Bologna Process has created the illusion on the European Commission’s legitimate position in European higher education policy. However, it goes unnoticed that out of the 47 countries participating in the EHEA 20 are not EU members, raising the question of why exactly did the representatives of those 20 countries accept the Commission’s leading role. After all – it is only the Commission of the European Communities, not that of the entire Europe. The answer I am suggesting is that those 20 countries have their own reasons to allow this, even if the policies promoted by the Commission for the EU economic competitiveness and other purpose may not necessarily represent a high level of relevance to them. But as, as one may argue, those policies remain largely unimplemented, capital can be potentially made out of such a symbiosis without sacrificing too much in economic or political terms.

The Energized Middle and Missing Perspectives

53The imagery of the future architecture of European higher education conveyed early in the Bologna Process when there were 29 countries participating in it was perhaps not realistic, but it was quite clear and so were its basic assumptions. The so called Zgaga report from 2003 (Zgaga, 2003) offers the best example of the tenor of the time by using expression such as the Bologna club and the European brand in higher education. The central idea being here that the structural features of European higher education, converging as a result of the implementation of the Bologna Declaration’s agenda, would eventually allow presenting European higher education as a distinct higher education brand to the external world. European higher education would as result of unrestricted mobility of students between the universities and participating countries become a single structure, so that a student for example from China or the Indian subcontinent would be able to combine her studies and pleasure, travel in Europe and collect study credits from various universities in different countries. The credit transfer system and the unquestionable recognition of the credits throughout the EHEA would allow the student checking out and collecting the degree at the final university on the travel list. Such would have been the proverbial cafeteria university of Europe.

54A fundamental assumption underlying the utopian cafeteria university Europe vision is the equality of all universities within the EHEA and the recognition of that by all. This assumption stands far from the reality. Even within a single country students are not free to combine credits from different universities. Oxford and Cambridge hardly ever accept credits collected from other universities towards their own degrees and student mobility between German Lands is still restricted. Student mobility premised on a system of unrestricted credit transfer is a fiction, as the academia and following them the world of universities and the one they ultimately maintain – society – is fundamentally hierarchically organized.

55The rapid expansion of the EHEA after 2003 when Russia joined it and opened the way to many other countries with little or no hope to join the European Union changed drastically the universe of conceivable worlds of European higher education. The cafeteria Europe university model covering the territory and universities from Vladivostok, Russia to Limerick, Ireland exceeded the wildest imagination even the most ardent supporters of the Bologna Process. The perceived crisis of the Lisbon Agenda towards Europe’s increased economic competitiveness in 2005 further strengthened the desire in the EU circles to put more stress on competition and competitiveness also in the higher education sector, as opposed to previously stressed equality and solidarity. The ultimate result of this changing attitude is the European Commission’s decision to support Europe-wide university rankings (referred to somewhat hypocritically as the « multidimensional transparency instruments » in the Leuven-Louvain-la-Neuve [Communiqué, 2009]).

56The big picture of the architecture of the European higher education system has been never discussed as an issue in the context of the Bologna Process. Neither has the impact of the Bologna Process on the universities, higher education, learning and scholarship been systematically studied. While the Commission is busy extending its mission by stepping into « grandmother’s footsteps », as Patten suggests, governments looking for additional sources of legitimacy and cash; and consultants making sure that they have their contracts coming along for the years to come, European universities may be changing in unpredicted and perhaps undesired ways and the fundamental features of the higher education systems modified without a moment of thought invested.

57Experiments in higher education reforms seem to be premised on the idea that universities are fundamentally incorruptible and that academics maintain their integrity despite any intervention and work and living conditions. This is a very optimistic assumption which may prove as mistaken sooner rather than later. It may well be that exploiting European universities to solve a multitude of other economic and political problems, will turn them along the lines referred to in the title of this article.


58Lord Patten has suggested that the methods similar to those we see practiced by the European Commission in the Bologna Process « give[s] voters the impression that it [the adopted best way towards a more federalist Europe] is an elitist conspiracy » (Patten, 2010). Perhaps at certain level Bologna Process constitutes indeed an elitist conspiracy – representatives of the executive branch and their experts shaping higher education systems in a manner never approved in a democratic process. It is deeply disturbing that that the main features of the emerging European higher education systems have been radically modified within the Bologna Process without a mention of it in any of the declarations or ministerial communiqués. While the European Commission, national governments and various agencies are working hard on solving their own problems, which quite often means selling their own solutions, the future of Europe’s higher education seems to be nobody’s concern.

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1Personal communication by Mrs. Anne Lonsdale, Acting Provost of the Nazarbaev University, Astana, Kazakhstan, and the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge, 7 December 2010.

2For example the European student organizations, deeply frustrated by the possible introduction of the tuition fees in the wake of structural reforms.

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Titre Figure 1: Evolution of the EHEA agenda in 2007-2012 according to Deca (2010)
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Voldemar Tomusk, « The Garbage of the Garbage », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [En ligne], Hors-série n° 3 | 2011, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2013, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Voldemar Tomusk

Sociologist, Open Society Foundation, London, UK,

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