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April 19, 2015
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Current Concerns  >  2013  >  No 6, 11 February  >  “You cannot sign that!” [printversion]

“With the best will in the world I cannot see anything positive in the Bologna reform,” Kurt Imhof says. “Except that by granting the bachelor degree we also certify superficial knowledge now.”
Prof Dr Kurt Imhof, Institute of Sociology of the University of Zurich

“You cannot sign that!”

How seven men instigate the greatest revolution at Swiss universities. – The incredible story of the Bologna reforms

by Matthias Daum*

The orchestra plays Beethoven’s ninth symphony. “Joy, beautiful spark of the gods ...” University presidents and politicians with responsibility for educational matters from thirty countries are crowded close together in the festively decorated Aula Magna. Some move through the four A4 pages that have just been handed out; the music drowns out the rustling of paper. What they are reading confirms their fears: Soon nothing will be the same at European universities as it has been so far.
It is 19 June 1999, a Saturday, when the European Ministers of Education sign a letter of intent at the University of Bologna, which will later be known as “Bologna Declaration”. Among them is a seven-member delegation from Switzerland, led by Charles Kleiber, Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Science.
These men set about to incite the greatest revolution at Swiss universities. Bologna is a paradigm shift – particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Where students previously had to acquire knowledge on their own, had to pervade the subject, education will henceforth be served to them bit by bit in module form.

An incredible story – absolutely underestimated in its effect

Today, ten years after the Bologna reform has been implemented at all Swiss universities, a thesis tells for the first time, how “Bologna” came to Switzerland. It was written by the educationalist Barbara Müller from Zurich, a proponent of the reform.
It is the story of seven men who trigger off a revolution – and who catch themselves by surprise in doing so. It is the story of an educational reform that has never been discussed in the public at large – but that has changed our idea of education completely. It is the story of a reform of which no one still knows what it will actually achieve. In short, it is an unbelievable story.
Or as Gerhard Schuwey, former director of the Federal Department for Education and Science, notes retrospectively: “To be honest, we must admit that the effect has been completely underestimated not only in Switzerland.”
The celebration in Bologna boasts of Italian pomp, dark state carriages, drivers and motorcycle queues. The Swiss delegation is impressed. In the auditorium the ministers are asked by roll call to come to the front to sign. “It would have been inconceivable for the Parliamentary Secretary not to sign, it would have been so compromising,” Rudolf Nägeli, who had travelled to Bologna as Secretary General of the German Rectors’ Conference, states now.

“The Bachelor-/Master-System ... not acceptable for Switzerland”

The die is cast. The Swiss Rectors however were very skeptical about the announced reforms. A week earlier, their plenary assembly had declared unambiguously: “Even a brief discussion of the Bologna draft shows that the Bachelor-/Master-System as proposed is not acceptable for Switzerland.”
On the eve of the signing ceremony, the Swiss meet for an informal dinner. The atmosphere is tense, because the invitation to the conference was very short-dated. There was no time for a broad discussion of the ideas. The rectors are worried that from now on policy will dictate the conditions to them. And especially now, after they have secured their independence in numerous referendums. The so far cantonal universities still get money from the state, but now they can decide themselves what they want to do with it. Parliamentary Secretary Kleiber, who dined with the European Ministers on that evening, remembers today: “The rectors came to my hotel. And they told me: ‘You cannot sign this paper!’ And then I told them I would sign, but we could still discuss the issue.”
I decide. I sign. No matter what you think. The Parliamentary Secretary’s attitude was not surprising. “We have no choice,” Charles Kleiber had already said in a one-hour television interview a year earlier. “The universities are now way beyond history; they are prisoners of their archaic structures.” Kleiber takes office as a Parliamentary Secretary in order to change the university system. In advance, he even published a programmatic book – “The University of tomorrow”. He sees himself as a prince who wakes the sleeping beauty university with a kiss. The trained architect wants to build a new academic world obeying the zeitgeist of the late 90s.

What the Euro is for economy, Bologna was supposed to be for science

More competition, more performance, more efficiency. And above all, more Europe. These are the slogans. What the Euro is for economy, Bologna is supposed to be for science. The great wave of European integration has also affected the education system.
And so this story has not begun just since the Aula Magna at Bologna, but in Paris in May 1998, when the world famous Sorbonne celebrated its 800th anniversary, as Barbara Müller shows in her thesis.
The French Education Minister Claude Allègre had invited. He had a problem. The report of a government advisor had just delivered a damning indictment of the French universities. They were “confused, bureaucratic and anti-social”. They were a case for reforms. But how could Minister Allègre completely change the universities given the huge opposition on the part of the students and universities, professors, and institutions? Allègre’s idea was: internationalism. If other countries were to reform their universities, the pressure on the French universities would increase.
The aim of the Sorbonne Declaration was a “Europe of Knowledge”. For the first time a credit (scoring) system, semesters abroad, facilitated validation of the various diplomas.

An unnecessary signature provokes a storm of reforms ...

To give the statement more political weight in Europe, France was looking for more cosignatories. Switzerland is also inquired. Although the conditions at local universities have never ever been comparable to those in France or Italy – the quality of supervision of students is better, the study period is shorter, the dropout rates are lower – the former Federal Councilor Ruth Dreifuss signed the declaration. For good measure, she also submitted the paper to the universities. They were indifferent. “It was a general statement, which you could basically have nothing against,” Nivardo Ischi, Secretary General of the University Conference, recalls: “The skeptics may have thought: You can agree, the paper will change nothing.”
With her signature Federal Councillor Dreifuss provoked a storm of reforms. Following the French pressure is now exerted by the Italians. In Paris, they already announce a new conference. In Bologna. And within these two and a half hours on a Saturday in June, the Education Ministers succeed in doing what the European Commission has not accomplished in four years of negotiating: They agree on a new European university system.

... and a near side note develops a life of its own

“Bologna” would almost have stayed a side note in Switzerland, another agreement, a paper, signed by someone somewhere. Just as Parliamentary Secretary Kleiber promised to the nervous university rectors several times on Friday night before the agreement was signed. The agreement is neither a treaty under international law nor a state treaty. Therefore, it does not have to be submitted to parliament. Even for Education Minister Ruth Dreifuss the conference in the north Italian city of Bologna was not a priority – would she otherwise have sent her Parliamentary Secretary?
The reform, however, develops a life of its own. It bursts into a power vacuum in the Swiss education policy. Politics is losing influence; the universities are becoming more self-confident. The Rector is no longer a primus inter pares, but a CEO. The university is a company; the students are its customers. The Bologna reform provides an opportunity to consolidate the new balance of power.

Surprise attack by an “icebreaker”

On 3 December 1999, the Rectors’ Conference meets for its plenary session. At the last agenda item ‘miscellaneous’ Peter Gomez, the new Rector of the University of St. Gall, surprisingly took the floor: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to announce that the University of St. Gallen is implementing the Bologna reform, and indeed completely and rather quickly, and we are reorganizing the entire university structure and are implementing a radical curriculum reform, and in a year, so next fall, we will already make a start with it.”
All attendees were flabbergasted. Everyone was silent. Questioning looks: “What is going on?”
Peter Gomez is the icebreaker, and other universities are following suit. First, the FIT Zurich, the University of Lucerne, then Basel, then the University of Italian Switzerland. “Everyone had the feeling that he had to do something”, says book author Barbara Müller: “Some implemented previously planned reforms; others came under pressure to take action. In any case, studies needed to modernize, they could not remain aesthetic and intellectually elitist.”
But what is the benefit of Bologna? To date, ten years after the reform had finally been introduced at all Swiss universities, no one can answer this question.

High cost of an aberration

The bare facts are sobering. Only one sixth of all students change university for the master degree. Less than five percent of bachelor graduates go abroad for it. The default rate is only reduced by ten percent. The study periods are only slightly shorter. And until today there has been no research which shows that it has actually become easier for bachelor-/master-graduates to find a job than it was for their predecessors, who studied in the licentiate system. Not to mention the costs that the reform has caused – and which no one can quantify.
There is lamenting at universities anyway, especially in the humanities and social sciences. For them the reform implies the biggest changes.
Kurt Imhof is a firm opponent of the Bologna process. In interviews the Zurich sociologist spoke about bulimia-learning in higher education: “Devour, vomit out, forget.” For Kurt Imhof today’s “university is the continuation of school by other means”. Students do nothing but cramming. The idea that young, rational adults would educate themselves at universities has been buried. The sociologist talks himself into a rage; he swears at the devaluation of his profession, he swears at students who have to be forced to go to the libraries, he swears at the service provider, into which the university has degenerated. “With the best will in the world I cannot see anything positive in the Bologna reform,” Kurt Imhof says. “Except that by granting the bachelor degree we also certify superficial knowledge now.”
So you ask him: Why did the professors not resist more strongly? Silence on the line. Pause. Then Imhof says: “The secret of the implementation of Bologna is New Public Management. Its evaluation programs and performance measurement provided orientation and relieved students and professors of having to orientate themselves. What should be done? “Bologna is an aberration we have to eliminate.”

Students incapacitated

Other Bologna critics do not think so. “You cannot roll it back,” says Achatz von Müller, medieval historian at the University of Basel. “We must not doubt about the principles, but need to think about how we could allow changes in the existing system.” Fully open studies, sailing on the open sea of knowledge without a compass had been a problem for von Müller. “The idea of a modularized study is reasonable,” he says, “But we have paid dearly for it.” Students are incapacitated, they no longer follow their own interests, they only ask: “How many credit points do I need?”
The frustration about the implementation of Bologna also affects declared proponents of the reform. Take for example Angelika Linke, linguistics professor at the University of Zurich: “Today Bologna is a completely inflexible system, exceptions are no longer possible. Many decisions are no longer made according to what is reasonable, but what is technically practicable at all under the requirements of computer-based management of teaching and learning.”

A mixture of neo-liberalism and planned economy

It is an irony of history that it is precisely a reform that was set up to dismantle the archaic structures in the universities, that now leads to a technologization and ossification of the universities. The implementation of Bologna is a mixture of neo-liberalism and planned economy. In the name of increased competition, the central regulatory power of the rectorates and deaneries is strengthened. And hence their chief behavior. Professors tell how the rector furiously entered their office, after they had criticized Bologna publicly: “You are always so negative!”
When asked why the professors did not resist more strongly, Angelika Linke answered: “Successful revolutions always address the structures, every historian will confirm that.”
On 19 June 1999 Charles Kleiber hears his name in the Aula Magna of Bologna. He steps forward, to the table, covered with red velvet: “I told myself, too bad that my name is not Xavier, Xavier Kleiber,” the Parliamentary Secretary recalls: “Then I could have written down an X”.
From the very beginning Bologna has been a bad joke in Switzerland.  •

Source: Die Zeit of 19.12.2012

(Translation Current Concerns)