Employability: an increasingly important and common concern

The Bologna Declaration has had a strong and positive effect on the debate about the relationship between higher education and professional life, in particular concerning the preparation of graduates for "employability". It has raised the profile of the issue and increased the awareness that it is a shared concern all over Europe.

The same as for its intention to increase mobility, the aim of the Bologna Declaration to promote the employability of graduates on the European labour market is seen as very important and relevant by the vast majority of signatory countries. In a similar way as for mobility, the Declaration is seen as underpinning national plans in promoting employability as a priority, for four different types of reasons.

Several countries stressed that employability has been a long-standing guide or base line in national higher education policy and see the Bologna Declaration as reinforcing it. In Sweden the collaboration of higher education institutions and professional and economic circles is seen as "generalised, natural and easy" and responsiveness to the needs of the surrounding society has been made the "third pillar" of higher education, on an equal footing with research and teaching. Similar attitudes exist in other Nordic countries. The Netherlands also see employability as a major issue for which there is broad support from government and social partners. France stressed that the shift towards "professionalisation" has been the base line of national higher education policy for three decades and is strongly reflected in the 4-year contracts signed between the Ministry and each university.

In countries where qualifications, including first degrees, have confirmed acceptance on the labour market (Ireland, the UK, Sweden, Malta, Iceland) the main emphasis seems not so much to be on employment in general (graduate unemployment is low), but rather on the adjustments to specific market needs, especially in view of growing skills and labour shortages (as reported in particular by Ireland and some Nordic countries). The introduction of the new 2-year "Foundation Degrees" in the UK is also mainly a response to a shortage of qualified graduates at this level.
The emphasis in the Bologna Declaration on employability meets other, convergent calls for reform related to the process of preparation for entrance into the EU. This has been stressed by all accession countries in various ways. Some regretted the restrictions to access to the European labour market which still exist in both directions between the EU and accession countries.

In several countries employability is a particularly high national priority as a response to high graduate unemployment. This has been stressed in particular by Italy and Spain. Greece underlined that the necessary change in this direction would require an increased dialogue between government, higher education institutions, students and employers. In Italy, "one of the most innovative aspects of the new architecture the whole higher education system introduced from 1999 is that it is also based on convergence with the labour market".

Employability : a powerful source of change and reform

From the three aims underpinning the Bologna Declaration, enhanced employability seems to be the strongest source of change and reform in higher education. This has also been significantly reinforced by the Lisbon Summit on Employment of March 2000, which has contributed to guiding national agendas in education and other areas. The impact of the Bologna Declaration can be found mainly in three areas.

The most visible aspect is that the Declaration created a broad debate about employability after a first (Bachelor-type) degree, e.g. in Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Flanders, etc. A few countries recalled that education is not only for professional purposes (e.g. Spain), or reported concern from the university sector that first degrees should not be geared too narrowly to short-term needs on the labour market. In countries where Bachelor degrees were introduced about a decade ago (in particular Denmark, Finland, Czech and Slovak Republics), there is a renewed debate around the definition (or redefinition) of Bachelor degrees . The general move is clearly towards a stronger attention to employment prospects and the acquisition of core, or transversal, skills. The new qualification frameworks adopted in the UK and Ireland are strongly "outcome based" and qualifications are mostly defined in terms of skills/competencies acquired by graduates. Denmark noted that both academic and professional Bachelor degrees needed to be "relevant" (although not in exactly the same way). Recent legislation in many countries made relevance to labour market a key factor for the authorisation (or "accreditation") of new programmes or made the collaboration with professional bodies compulsory in the development of new curricula, e.g. in Italy (where employability is seen as the major change required in the new system launched in 1999), Germany, Austria, Latvia, France, Flanders or in Switzerland's plans for a new quality assurance agency. This is often in combination with the requirement that all curricula must provide core skills (Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Bulgaria) or with an encouragement to create shorter curricula (Estonia).

Some countries have also undertaken specific efforts to promote first degree graduates on the labour market. In Germany, where the Conference of Ministers of Education (KMK) in March 1999 stressed market relevance as a key dimension in the new degree structure, this was reinforced by a similar emphasis in the German Employers' Association's "Cologne Declaration" (October 1999) on new higher education qualifications. Some countries reported concrete measures aimed at adjusting the statutes/laws regulating access to civil service (e.g. Austria, Italy, Germany) or to regulated professions (e.g. Slovakia) in order to create opportunities for holders of first degrees.

The second impact of the Bologna Declaration's interest in employability is that in a number of countries it provided new impetus for the development of the college/polytechnic sector and created a new debate on the respective roles of various types of higher education institutions. This debate has been widespread in countries with a binary system, especially those where a strong college/polytechnic sector provides a relatively high number of graduates with qualifications geared towards access to the labour market after 2, 3 or 4 years. The need for a shift towards "employability" in the university sector is clearly not felt in the same way in countries with a strong binary system and in those where higher education is mostly or exclusively found at universities.

The new impetus for professional higher education has led to the creation or extension of a binary system in several countries, e.g. Finland, Malta, Estonia, Slovakia, and Italy. Italy has recently introduced in some regions a new sector for advanced professional education and training (FSI) with a view to create an alternative to university education. The introduction of Foundation Degrees in progress at British universities, although not in direct response to the Bologna Declaration, also points in the direction of the diversification of higher education as a means towards broader access and easier employability. The creation of the "professional licence" at French universities and of professional bachelors in several countries are on the contrary largely a response to the Bologna Declaration. The debate about Master degrees at colleges/polytechnics (cf. section on degree the Bachelor/Master articulation) should also be seen in this connection.

Finally, the Bologna Declaration has played an important role in drawing attention to the increasingly European dimension of the issue of employability. This was noted by e.g. France, Malta, Latvia, Iceland and Sweden. Sweden stressed that "for a small country, it is natural to develop employability for the national, European and international market in parallel with measures for mobility". In most countries the widening of the European dimension in higher education qualifications is seen mainly in conjunction with the development of EU programmes for co-operation and mobility. There is renewed attention given to the setting up of joint, integrated or double-degree courses in several countries, e.g. Germany and Italy (which have both created special funding possibilities for such courses), Estonia, France, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Iceland and Denmark. Greece regrets that only a few universities/faculties are engaged in this type of curricular development in the country. A dozen countries mention the development of courses with a "European" orientation taught in English and designed for national and foreign students alike (there are for example some 500 such courses in Sweden). The continuous development of European summer courses in a wide spectrum of disciplines and specialisation areas, run by a single institution or jointly by higher education networks (e.g. UNICA, or ECIE) should also be noted in this regard.

Several countries see the EU Directives on professional recognition as an important tool for the implementation of the Bologna Declaration's aims concerning employability in Europe. Accession countries are integrating in their curricula the standards set by the EU for various specific professions (e.g. nurses and midwifes in Poland, health professions and teachers in Romania, etc). These changes, while mainly related to the accession process and the acquis communautaire are mentioned as measures which would have happened anyway in these countries, but at the same time underpin the objectives of the Bologna Declaration.

Acknowledging the need for European higher education to become more attractive (or "competitive")

While support for mobility was predictable and support for employability expected, the strong backing of the Bologna Declaration's aim to promote competitiveness (in the meaning of "attractiveness") was much less obvious. The answers collected for this study reflect a remarkable increase of awareness of what is at stake and the beginning of a mobilisation of energies and resources. In stressing the need for European higher education to ensure its place in the world, the Declaration has played a major role in this direction.

The issue of competitiveness is seen as an important priority by an amazingly high number of countries. Very few countries do not see it as an area of concern. The Bologna Declaration has had three different effects on the issue of competitiveness.

First, it brought the issue into focus, as was mentioned by e.g. Norway, Flanders, or even Switzerland (in spite of its 20-30 % foreign students, 40% at postgraduate level). In Finland the work on a strategy to promote the country as a study destination "would not have started without the Bologna Declaration". Germany sees the internal restructuring of its higher education system and its international promotion as two equally important pillars of its comprehensive reform process. Quite understandably the push for competitiveness is less felt in countries (mainly in Southeast Europe) where higher education is still considerably oversubscribed.

Second, the Bologna Declaration has drawn attention to signals that "went unnoticed for a long time (France) pointing to declining overall attractiveness. This seems to apply to various aspects: the overall decrease in student numbers from non-EU/EEA countries has long been ignored in the countries concerned; the generalisation of the Bachelor/Master structure throughout the world except in continental Europe was not noticed (as reported by Germany, but applicable elsewhere); and the belated acknowledgement that "students have problems for the recognition of long diplomas in their country" (e.g. by Germany and Italy).

It should however also be pointed out that the issue of transnational education is still not fully acknowledged. Only Greece and Portugal reported serious concern about it. A few countries have set up rules submitting transnational education to national quality assurance or accreditation (e.g. Hungary, Lithuania, or Austria). Latvia pointed out that these measures were not in a position to stop the development of unofficial transnational education which does not seek, and maybe does not need to be integrated in the national frame.

Third, the Bologna Declaration added a new dimension to the policy of internationalisation by "articulating national and European attractiveness" (France). There seems to be a growing awareness that for foreign students the choice is first between Europe and other continents, and only once Europe is seen as a real option does the student refine his/her choice. Austria sees the promotion of Europe as a whole as a study/research place as the "backbone of the Bologna Declaration". For Greece, the increased competitiveness of Europe is a means to improve the situation in each individual country. For the Netherlands, the need to be attractive and readable was a major reason for signing the Bologna Declaration in the first place.

There are, of course, various reasons why the attention paid to attractiveness and competitiveness is growing throughout Europe. Three main motivations seem to play a role.

For several countries, the main goal is to attract more foreign students, in particular non-European students. France and Germany expressed concern about loss of attractiveness and Sweden wants to prevent a similar drift. Receiving more foreign students is mentioned as a national goal in the UK, Norway and Sweden (which have long "exported" many students and now want to "import" more), Austria, Germany, France, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands as well as in Malta, Hungary and Latvia. Many of these countries, as well as Switzerland, are in particular interested in attracting young researchers in order to maintain a world-class research environment. Another goal they have in common is to increase the international acceptance of their own degrees.

Another major reason for policies aimed at increasing the attractiveness of national higher education is related to European integration. For countries in the accession process to the EU, their integration into the EU programmes has stimulated the need and willingness to be attractive to students from other European countries. Some countries stress that their graduates will seek study and employment in Europe and therefore the national system must be competitive (e.g. Estonia or Malta), several others emphasise that in the framework of the EU programmes they need to be attractive in order to have "real exchanges" and not only an outflow of students (all 3 Baltic countries, Slovenia, Romania, etc). As Bulgaria put it, these efforts are mainly related to European integration, but they also meet the objectives of the Bologna Declaration.

A third, slightly different reason can be found in some countries which see the Europeanisation of their higher education systems as a means to make them more competitive. This is strongly emphasised in Italy, where a "very high national priority" and the main aim of the broad reforms in progress are to increase the competitiveness of Italian universities. Other countries, e.g. Austria and Malta, also see Europeanisation as a factor to gain a competitive edge.

With these various aims in mind, different types of measures have been introduced throughout Europe. Several countries have developed comprehensive strategies; they are typically based on co-operation between government (Ministry of Education and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and higher education institutions and usually started as a response to a report confirming the need for action in this area. In Sweden, a State Committee proposed in February 2001 a five-year action plan ("Advantage Sweden") which was perceived as urgently needed. In Finland, the Ministry set up a working group in the fall of 2000 to design a marketing strategy for Finnish higher education. In Germany, the process was started at the end of 1999 with a report adopted jointly by the federal and states governments stressing the need to increase the international competitiveness of German higher education. This led one year later to a major federal marketing project to stimulate through DAAD and the Rectors' Conference the "export" of German higher education, with a budget of over DM one billion. In the UK the Prime Minister set a clear target in June 1999: to increase Britain's market share to 25 % of all mobile students. The British Council now operates a major five-year worldwide plan to establish the "EducationUK" brand name to help British universities in their marketing efforts.

Measures applied include traditional ones, such as information (brochures, databases, student fairs) and the provision of language courses for incoming students (both for ERASMUS exchange students and for others). There is, however, a whole range of other developments which demonstrate the growing role and the re-orientation of policies in this area.

Active marketing is rapidly gaining ground and is becoming an increasingly important task for many existing national agencies such as the British Council, DAAD, NUFFIC, etc. France has recently created a marketing body ("Edufrance") and Switzerland is considering creating one. In many cases, these agencies push for the transformation of existing programmes and the creation of new ones responding to the needs of international students. In many countries universities are setting up a new generation of internationally oriented, mostly postgraduate programmes taught in English, either specifically for foreign students or for a mixed audience of local and international students. There seems to be a growing awareness that Europe could offer on the world market unique programmes drawing on the joint curricular work of institutions in more than one country. Some countries are establishing support centres in the targeted countries (e.g. Netherlands, Germany; the UK has already established such centres around the world).

A profound, long-overdue change can be noticed in visa policies. After at least one decade of disastrous visa policies applied to foreign students, interns and teachers/researchers, a number of countries are now changing their approach. The UK, Ireland and Malta are the only countries referring to a well-established policy of making immigration procedures in this area as user-friendly as possible. Other countries seem to have discovered the need for a drastic change (France, Germany, the Netherlands). Several are now introducing more user-friendly procedures (Germany, France), the possibility for students to work part-time, to return home in the summer or to bring along their family (Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Flanders). Some countries now recognise the need to improve non-educational services to foreign students, concerning e.g. accommodation (e.g. Italy, Sweden, Austria, France), or "social and academic tutoring" (Germany). Some countries also recommend a more generous approach to the recognition of foreign degrees (e.g. Sweden, or Germany's "Master Plus" scheme aimed at helping holders of a foreign bachelor degree to find their way into German higher education).

It is interesting to observe that while very few countries see tuition-free education as a key factor of attractiveness (exceptions are the Czech Republic regarding Slovak students and Belgium) equally few mention financial reasons as an important motive for international marketing (the UK, the Netherlands, to a limited extent Malta, Latvia or Hungary). On the contrary the no-fee policy has been recently reconfirmed in Sweden (overall) and in Germany (only for studies up to the first degree). From these observations it should be clear that in most cases the efforts towards increased attractiveness and competitiveness of European higher education are driven mostly by non-financial motives, such as cultural influence, the internationalisation of the national higher education system, labour market and research policy needs, the safeguarding of the higher education sector through the inflow of talent, etc. A number of countries are providing additional grants to incoming students; e.g. Germany, the UK, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Another important aspect is that in all countries the national schemes put in place stress that it is the responsibility of higher education institutions themselves to be attractive to foreign applicants and to act to recruit them. At the same time, few plans seem to consider it important to provide incentives to institutions. In the UK a main aim of the national scheme is to develop the "entrepreneurial skills" at universities. Sweden and Germany provide some initial support for marketing initiatives. Flanders provides the same funding for non -EU students as for European students for up to 2 % of total enrolments to the universities. In a few countries (e.g. Malta, Latvia, Iceland) some financial incentives seem to exist.

Some countries have taken measures to foster the international acceptance of their degrees, mostly through traditional instruments (e.g. bilateral agreements or the dissemination of information through the NARIC network or the national Ministry of Education). For some countries, better international acceptance of their degrees is a major benefit they expect from the 1997 Lisbon Convention. Some countries are increasing their support (e.g. through the Diploma Supplement or more specific aid) to foreigners graduating from one of their universities to get their degree recognised or accepted abroad. Several countries rely on more structural reforms to improve the international acceptance of their degrees, e.g. through ECTS credits or grading (Italy, Estonia), the adoption of a Bachelor/Master structure (Germany, Austria, Italy) or though the creation/strengthening of a trustworthy accreditation system (Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Romania). The most comforting aspect, however, is that more and more European countries and universities are becoming aware that their degrees are not globally recognised in the world at the level obtained, and that co-ordinated action (starting with a thorough survey of the actual situation) is needed in this area.

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