Fifteen Years Bologna-Declaration – When will we replace students with computers?

The Bologna-Declaration was signed fifteen years ago and envisioned a regime of quantification, standardization, and quality assessment for Europe’s universities. Since then, we have witnessed the adaptation of education and science in line with the Europe of Knowledge fancied by ministers of education. To finalize this process, we should consider to replace students with computers, too.

Precisely fifteen years ago twenty-nine European ministers of education signed the Bologna-Declaration (pdf) that expressed the ideas of a new “Europe of Knowledge”: University degrees should be easily comprehensible and comparable, split into two cycles (pre- and postgraduate), be based on a credit point system that improves mobility (What is a credit point?), and the European countries should cooperate in quality assessment according to comparable criteria.

Political versus academic ideals

It is interesting to compare this document to the Magna Charta of the European Universities that was also signed in Bologna, though by Rectors of Universities who had come to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Europe’s oldest university in 1988. They emphasized academic freedom, autonomy, and independence. The means to guarantee such fundamental principles were the unity of research and teaching, safeguarding students’ freedoms, and mutual exchange of information.

The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies differently organized because of geography and historical heritage; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching. To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power. (Magna Charta of the European Universities)

The bean counters prevailed

Now in the year 2014, fifteen years after Bologna and twenty-six years after the Magna Charta, we know which kind of thinking about the university system has prevailed: Not that emphasizing autonomy and freedom, but that Europe of Knowledge with its regime of standardization, quantification, and comparing. So far, this has been a century for the bean counters, not for the creative thinkers. It is widely acknowledged that not even the aim of increased mobility has been reached.

By contrast, increased bureaucracy, due to the two cycles requiring more applications, motivation letters, selection, etc. as well as the increased number of exams to satisfy the requirements of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, are decreasing people’s freedom, both that of students and teachers. The German Humboldt-Foundation for Science, Art, and Education drew a devastating conclusion in its second Position Paper on the Bologna-Declaration (pdf, German): “From the present perspective, the implementation of the Bologna-Declaration has practically failed (at least in its German ‘version’).”

Elite programs are no solution

Together with the further increase of students, a trend that began in the 1970s and to which elected policy makers responded with ever more budget cuts, we should critically ask ourselves whose needs the present system primarily serves: Those who want to educate and be educated autonomously, or those who want to measure and compare easily? The academic rebels of the platform Science in Transition around Frank Miedema, Dean of the Medical Faculty in Utrecht, expressed the concern that nowadays only students in Elite programs receive decent academic training (Why Science Does Not Work as It Should And What To Do about It).

Honours Programs and University Colleges have indeed become quite common in the Netherlands and I also know people in Germany fancying them. I am not against extra educational possibilities for motivated students; by contrast, I keep offering them myself, both in my regular and voluntary extra teaching. However, I see two major risks, namely, first, that the existence of such privileged student groups justifies more cuts for the universities at large, because they can still “produce” excellent graduates (even if only about ten percent, i.e. those selected for the special programs); and, second, that such labels are increasingly used by colleagues to select students at further stages of the academic ladder.

Standardize and be standardized

I have heard anecdotally that some professors only accept Honours students for internships or Bachelor groups and that the selection for competitive Master programs that further qualify for Doctoral programs are also relying on such putative labels of excellency. However, we must avoid to predetermine academic careers already after one or two terms, when selections for the Honours program are made, and also avoid assessing our expectations of students instead of their performance. We already know that expectations influence performance, see the Rosenthal effect.

Multiple Choice Exam

A scene from university life: Here 348 exams have been prepared for the students of my Theory of Science course. After they learned about the limitations and – often unexpected – side-effects of standardization, they were standardized themselves with pre-defined question- and answer-forms. Enjoy Credit Points, please!

The way the students are treated in the present university system only reflects what is happening to us, both as educators and researchers. The primary and sometimes even the sole virtue of indicators for measuring and comparing our or our university’s performance seems to be just that: that they can easily be measured, no matter how meaningless a measure they are for academic and/or scientific quality. I do not want to repeat all the critique of the Impact Factor or university rankings; please refer to the further readings section below.

It need not be good, as long as it can be counted

However, I recently asked the director of an important research institution who has already won research prizes worth millions why these rankings are still used by policy makers to justify critical budget decisions, in spite of their well-known limitations. He responded speculatively that although they all had some limitations, they pretty well reflected the true quality of a university when taken together. I find the idea that the combination of ever more mistakes eventually leads to the right solution a bit too optimistic to take it for granted, particularly when such high stakes are involved.

Let us not forget that that regime of standardization, quantification, and comparing does not primarily serve the needs of those people living in the system, namely the students, teachers, researchers, professors; we may even assume that many of its aspects are actually against those people’s needs. No, this system primarily serves the needs of the bean counters who try to sell us an arbitrary standard as an objective measure of quality to justify the implementation of ever more competition and quality assessment. Joachim Lege, professor for Public Law at the University of Greifswald, raised the question whether the bureaucracy related to the Bologna-Declaration is even constitutional. In so far as the countries we live in guarantee academic and/or scientific freedom, we may ask that question more generally.

The effects of standardization

This new regime has wider ramifications for those who are evaluated in it. Its pre-defined standards invite strategic behavior that is not in favor of furthering academic ideals, what the standards might originally have been introduced for, but just in favor of meeting the standard. Presidents of science associations emphasized that, for example, the Impact Factor corrupts scholars, in particular younger ones competing for scarce means and tenured positions. A more general example is provided by Stefan Selke, a sociology professor investigating the effects of Lifelogging and the Quantified Self: Selke, who is also a glider pilot, experienced that the quantification, measurement, and public sharing of gliding data created a new standard that now coerces gliding pilots to produce certain numbers instead of enjoying their flights.

With respect to universities, Massive Open Online Courses are now discussed as a new possibility to expand academic education, possibly reaching tens of thousands of students at once. It goes without saying that such efforts go hand in hand with further standardization and automation, in the teaching as well as the assessment of students’ performance. My proposal is more radical: Let us not stop with the automatization of the university lecture or seminar; let us automatize the university student as well. We could program Student Apps that produce all the numbers that make bean counters happy. Student Apps would also scale pretty well with the availability of more powerful computers.

When will we automatize students?

My proposal has two essential advantages: First, once academic education is perfectly standardized, quantified, comparable, and automatized in this manner, Higher Authority could directly program educators and students, albeit virtual ones, in real-time to fulfill their pre-defined productivity measure, thus avoiding a lengthy procedure of adaptation and relocation of funds by means of competition. Second, the real people could then meet outside of these new universities and engage in something they have not done for a while. That is, to think about what kind of university system they actually want to live in.


A more comprehensive comment on the anniversary of the Bologna-Declaration was published in German in Telepolis today: Fünfzehn Jahre Bologna-Erklärung - eine Polemik.

Further Reading

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