New contexts for university languages: the Bologna Process, globalisation and employability

Author: Jim Coleman


So far, the Bologna Process is changing university studies in all countries except the UK. However, the author posits that the globalisation and commercialisation of HE may overtake the Bologna agenda and goes on to discuss this paradox. Prior strategies for emphasising employability have perhaps been badly-implemented and so suggestions for future improvement are included.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

The shape of university studies is, as a result of the Bologna Process, changing in every country in Europe except the one country whose Bachelor-Masters-PhD structure and quality assurance processes have provided both the model and the vocabulary for Bologna: the UK. At the same time, multiple indicators suggest that the Bologna agenda to make Europe competitive in a knowledge economy through harmonisation of Higher Education (HE) may be overtaken by the globalisation of HE, and by the actions of individual member states, in the pursuit of the same competitive objective, to further commercialise HE in order to fund expansion and to respond to GATS and other pressures.

Modern Languages, in the sense of foreign language proficiency and related cultural insights, represent both a degree subject and a transferable skill. Employability is both an explicit objective of the Bologna Process and a marketing asset for language degrees.

This paper explores two factors driving change in HE languages, and attempts to portray the reality of a related theme, the employability of language graduates.

2. Bologna

The Bologna Process is an initiative of the European Union (EU) to harmonise HE systems. Signed on 9 June 1999 by 29 countries, and currently extending to 40 signatories, the Bologna Agreement will promote, through its two cycles of study and adoption of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), mobility of students and staff, shared quality assurance mechanisms, and graduate employability. However, its ambition is limited to convergence rather than complete standardisation of HE systems, and since education in the EU is devolved to national governments, it remains advisory and not compulsory. Nonetheless, the Bologna Process has brought the biggest changes in over a century to HE in most European countries.

Defining the aims of Bologna as a Europe of Knowledge' for the EU to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world' (see Related Links) underlines that HE is seen not as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge, but rather as a tool in globalised economic development.

Reichert and Tauch (2003) reviewed progress for the European University Association through an extensive survey of European Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). They found action to be top-down rather than bottom-up, i.e. involving Governments rather than students or staff or HEIs, and still hindered by lack of finance and by national legislation. Progress is uneven: In Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden, Germany, Ireland and most strongly the UK, deliberations on institutional Bologna reforms are even less widespread than in the other Bologna signatory countries.' Harmonisation of recruitment is incomplete: most HEIs target national or at most EU students, but some, especially the UK, Spain, and Germany target globally; and while most HEIs do not use targeted marketing to recruit students, in the UK and Ireland 80% of HEIs do.

The EUA report concludes: The conflict between cooperation and solidarity, on the one hand, and competition and concentration of excellence, on the other, is currently growing as HEIs are faced with decreasing funding'. If cooperation and solidarity are terms rarely applied to UK HE in recent years, British HEIs have become very familiar with notions of competition between HEIs, of centres of excellence, and especially of a funding crisis which has been used to justify the introduction of tuition fees of up to £3000 per student per annum from 2006.

The UK is the slowest signatory to implement Bologna, and deeply committed to global student recruitment: HEI budgets depend on fee income from international' (i.e. non-EU) students, the English Funding Council HEFCE is predicting 39% growth in international students, while the British Council has set a target of 850,000 international students by 2020. Yet the UK is both the model for Bologna, and the key source of its concepts and vocabulary quality assurance, learning outcomes, benchmarking, generic skills and employability.

The paradox of Bologna is thus that the EU's attempt to respond to globalised economic competition may be undermined and outpaced by this same competition. European HEIs, tempted by higher fees, is following the UK's globalisation agenda: its commitment is underlined by the adoption across Europe of English-medium teaching as the price of globalised recruitment.

3. Globalisation

The marketisation of HE is inseparable from the problems of funding its expansion, dictated by a knowledge-based globalised economy. The US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan want HE included in the General Agreement on Trade in Services. British Ministers and Vice-Chancellors use indistinguishable terms to describe a future in which universities compete globally for prestige, research funding and international students: more than one European country is looking to introduce fees on the UK model, while elsewhere private HEIs have taken up the challenge faster than impoverished state institutions. For the individual student, choice of HEI is more than ever an investment decision.

4. Employability

It is important to regard higher education as a long-term personal investment that will bring many personal as well as financial rewards' asserts a 2004 UCAS booklet The Value of Higher Education , stressing employability as a factor in student choice. The adoption by Modern Languages of practical, work-related skills as a recruitment slogan has been well-publicised and ineffective. Detailed analysis of what jobs graduates get, and of whether a Modern Languages degree is actually an asset, shows the recruiting campaign to have been ill-founded: we would do better to recruit on the basis of the broader benefits of a languages degree, and on the huge range of good jobs to which language graduates have access.


Reichert, S. and Tauch, C. (2003) Trends 2003 - Progress towards the European Higher Education Area, available at European University Association (

Related links

European University Association (EUA)