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Bologna Process

An Overview of the Bologna Process

In the 1980s Europeans decided to ease transition from upper secondary to post-secondary education across Europe by deliberating (under UNESCO auspices) and declaring all individual upper secondary university-bound leaving certificates to be comparable. This decision enabled holders of the French Baccalaureat (for example) to access British universities, German Reifezeugnis holders to enter French universities etc. Thus, mobility among the European participants was guaranteed in theory without changing a thing. It was also agreed at the time to reform Higher Education as well.

In Bologna, Italy, in June 1999 26 Ministers of Education from various European countries met to create the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) which has since become known as the Bologna Process from that first meeting. As of June 2009, the number had grown to 47. In that first meeting it was decided to reform European Higher Education, not as was done some 15 years before with secondary education by declaring all leaving certificates, however named and at whatever length, but by actually altering significantly the existing national systems of education to conform to a agreed upon model. They created, in effect, a European educational ‘euro.’

Several things were decided at that first meeting in Bologna:

  1. A new system of degrees of three levels or cycles would be created spanning higher education with each one leading to the other. These degrees had no mandated name but over the years have become known as bachelor, master, and doctor. No length for the first degree was stipulated but it could NOT be less than three years. The subsequent second level degree would last for however many years combining the two together to add up to five years. Thus, one could have 3+2 or 4+1 for bachelor/master. The vast majority of signatory countries have opted for the 3+2 model.
  2. The new degrees would be based on a credit system and the ECTS or European Credit Transfer System founded in 1989 for the Erasmus programs on student mobility was adopted. This system is based on a full annual load of 60 ECTS (30 per semester) and includes lecture, lab, tutorials, and outside class work time. A typical 3+2 system would have 180 ECTS
  3. A document enumerating the degrees and credits and other pertinent information about the educational system of that country would be issued upon completion of the degree(s) and it was to be called the Diploma Supplement. These would be in English and the indigenous language and include information on grading and the overall educational system of the country.
  4. A system of quality assurance or accreditation would also be instituted that stretched between institutions and countries involved in the Bologna Process.

These four features of the Process would be implemented over time in each of the countries with 2010 as the date set for full implementation. The biannual Ministers Conferences began in 2001 to assess progress toward full implementation which is then recorded in communiqués and reports (Trends I-V through 2007). The Ministers have met at the following sites: Prague (2001), Berlin (2003), Bergen (2005), London (2007), and the 2009 meeting is scheduled for Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve in Belguim.

The effect on higher education in the United States, particularly in terms of admission to graduate programs, centers largely on the nature of the three year Bologna-compliant first level degrees. Historically US graduate programs have required four year (or more) first university degrees for admission. This requirement stems from the wording most institutions use in the admission of their domestic students “must possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited (many actually assert ‘regionally accredited’) institution in the United States or foreign equivalent.” The problem of equivalence complicates this requirement since there are very few first university degrees ‘equivalent’ to the U.S. bachelors found abroad (with the exception of those countries with educational systems closely following the US model).

Degree comparability, therefore, generally was reduced to counting the total number of years of full time study. Thus, the three year bachelor’s from Ontario, Canada or Australia or India or South Africa (to name but a few) were considered insufficient for admission to graduate study. This policy is further reinforced when the question of fairness arises in terms of treatment of three year degree holders versus US degree holders. European (and European style) degrees, and Bologna-compliant degrees are no exception, are exceedingly steeped in the chosen field of study eschewing the US preference for mixing in a substantial amount of non-major courses referred to most frequently as General Distributive Education. Given the starkly different models of higher education, counting the total years of full time education has become the de facto process by which degree comparability was determined. Indeed, placement recommendations emanating from the National Council on the Evaluation of Foreign Educational Credentials in books and publications for the US International Admissions community almost always followed this methodology for a large part of the 50 years of its existence.

Bologna-Compliant Degrees and US Admission and Placement

AACRAO has been involved in the placement of international students in US educational institutions for over 50 years. In 1955, AACRAO created the AACRAO Committee on the Evaluation of Foreign Student Credentials which then evolved into an inter-associational committee, The National Council on the Evaluation of Foreign Educational Credentials consisting of various associations involved in international education. This Council provided placement advice in the succession of publications on overseas country education systems that were generated by the various associations during that 50-year period. In March 2006 the Council was dissolved as publications began to slow to a trickle with the disappearance of major outside funding.

Meanwhile, AACRAO moved to fill the ensuing void both in publications and in placement recommendations. The AACRAO Board of Directors approved the creation of the International Education Standards Council (IESC), which would render placement advice in AACRAO publications, and country profiles of which The Electronic Database for Global Education (EDGE) is a major new example. The approval of the placement recommendations by the Standards Council is based on a review of the information contained in the publication which validates and supports the recommendations of the author. The placement recommendations are to be considered as guidelines for evaluators in determining foreign credential equivalencies to U.S. degrees and diplomas. They are written to allow flexibility on the part of the users depending on the focus and programs offered at U.S. institutions.

In the Resources section we have provided a significant amount of detailed information on the Bologna Process using Internet links to official information and other useful sources on the topic. Readers are urged to visit these sites and familiarize themselves with the wealth of detail about this very significant process of transformation of European higher education.

Because this transformation is so important in the analysis of European higher education credentials it is vital to summarize the key component of the process with respect to U.S. graduate admissions. Certainly the Bologna Process has a major impact on other areas of U.S. higher education such as undergraduate transfer credit policies and Study Abroad credit issues, but it is in the realm of graduate placement that this Process has the most profound effect. The Bologna Process is to culminate with full implementation among the signatory countries by 2010. However, it is unlikely that all features of the Process will uniformly replace the former aspects of higher education in these countries by that time. Nevertheless as the transformation continues to move forward, U.S. educational administrators will increasingly be faced with these new credentials. Therefore it is important that AACRAO EDGE make a statement on how to interpret the credentials resulting from the Bologna Process.

The essential philosophy under-pinning European higher education and that, which defines U.S. higher education, is fundamentally different. In Europe, post-secondary education represents intensive study in a chosen field, while the U.S. undergraduate is exposed to a broader range of subject matter which includes emphasis on a selected field of study. It is difficult to readily compare these two approaches to higher education and consequently U.S. International Admissions Officers chose to utilize an applied comparative approach that was characterized by quantitative approach. Thus traditionally many have felt that a four-year post-secondary credential was the best indicator of comparability to a U.S. bachelor’s. In individual EDGE entries for the signatory countries, credential advice is given for the Bologna-compliant degree structure. In most instances this advice will follow the standard recommendation that three-year degrees and diplomas result in 3 years of transfer credit on a course-by-course basis.

Increasingly, however, U.S. Graduate and International Admissions Officers realize that the graduates of three year first degree programs in Europe have in depth academic preparation in a chosen field and are adequately prepared to study in a closely related U.S. graduate level program. So even though EDGE continues to deem a four-year first degree to be most comparable to the U.S. bachelor’s degree, it is also clear that Graduate Departments of U.S. colleges and universities may consider admitting qualified applicants to their programs. Given the preparation that graduates of Bologna-compliant degree programs possess, EDGE suggests that, under certain conditions, U.S. Graduate Admissions officers may wish to admit these students to their graduate degree programs.

Suggested conditions or criteria for admission of students from Bologna signatory countries are:

  1. Degree must be in the same or similar field of study
  2. Should require an unrestricted post-secondary entrance qualification
  3. Bologna compliant degrees must lead to unrestricted admission to the next educational level
  4. Awarding institution should be comparable in nature to receiving institution
  5. A national quality assurance mechanism must be in place in order for a three-year degree to receive consideration for possible placement in graduate level programs in the United States.
  6. A close comparison of the curriculum of the overseas degree and the content of the US degree reveals significant compatibility according to the views of the faculty in the receiving graduate department.
  7. The Bologna-compliant degree holder is deemed prepared to undertake graduate level study as would a student enrolled in comparable courses at an institution in the US (i.e. beginning senior in undergraduate studies).

Bologna Declaration Signatory Countries

Bologna Declaration Signatory Countries
Country Year Signed
Albania 2003
Andorra 2003
Armenia 2005
Austria 1999
Azerbaijan 2005
Belarus 2015
Bosnia and Herzegovina 2003
Bulgaria 1999
Croatia 2001
Cyprus 2001
Czech Republic 1999
Denmark 1999
Estonia 1999
Finland 1999
France 1999
Georgia 2005
Germany 1999
Greece 1999
Hungary 1999
Iceland 1999
Ireland 1999
Italy 1999
Kazakhstan 1999
Latvia 1999
Liechtenstein 2001
Lithuania 1999
Luxembourg 1999
Malta 1999
Moldova 2005
Montenegro 2007
The Netherlands 1999
Norway 1999
Poland 1999
Portugal 1999
Romania 1999
Russian Federation 2003
Serbia 2003
Slovak Republic 1999
Slovenia 1999
Spain 1999
Sweden 1999
Switzerland 1999
"The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" 2003
Turkey 2001
Ukraine 2005
United Kingdom 1999
Vatican City, Holy See 2003

headshot of Johnny Johnson
Johnny K. Johnson

Director of Foreign Credentials Evaluation Services of America (FCSA)

Gloria Nathanson

Associate Director, Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools

headshot of Robert Watkins
Robert Watkins

Special Assistant to the Director, University of Texas at Austin


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