Posted by: Gillian | December 18, 2007

Study for a degree abroad – a dawning reality

Two weeks ago Peter W (British) asked me and another English person what we thought of foreign degrees and whether or not he would be wise to try and do his Masters while working in Spain in 2008-9. Peter’s first degree is in Tourism and he is off to gain experience in Barcelona leaving behind work in a hotel complex where his co-workers were French, Poles and Indians as well as British. His Indian co-workers had been talking about their need for extra Certificates, Diplomas and higher Degrees in order to secure the best jobs at home and that, combined with less qualification-driven but internationally mobile European colleagues had made him take a look at his own career prospects. That lunchbreak was a long one as we rang round various contacts trying to sort out options (apologies to anyone else trying to have a quiet pizza that day!). In theory, Peter’s education requirements should be met under the ‘Bologna process’ but that is not yet fully realised even though there is sometimes strong political endorsement of it.

Bologna objectives
So, what is the mysterious ‘Bologna process’ that my HE colleagues talk about so freely and that almost no-one else has heard of? Simply, to create economic growth and avoid economic decline, a number of European nations set up a process to promote:

  • Workforce and learner mobility
  • European co-operation in quality assurance [of higher education]
  • Lifelong learning
  • Shift to ‘learning outcomes’ [emphasis on what student can do not on what teacher supplies]

That sounds as though it should suit Peter but what is the reality and is ‘Europe’ a wide enough area when tourism is global? Let’s have a quick look at the history and current status of the Bologna process:

History of Bologna Process in bullets

  • 1997 Lisbon Agreement stated that there should be mutual recognition of qualifications across the then-existing ‘Europe’.
  • 19 June 1999 the ‘Bologna Process’ was launched by Ministerial communiqué. Outcomes were to be equated across Europe and qualifications mutually recognised.
  • Dublin 2002 set the ‘Dublin Descriptors’ of Bachelors and Masters degrees. These have since been modified but the principle of the outcomes that are to be verified at each level are established. (These ‘Dublin Descriptors’ (Ireland) are nothing to do with the ‘Dublin Core’ (Ohio) metadata tags that are relevant to SCORM and plug-in plug-out ‘learning objects’).
  • Berlin 2003 added PhDs and more general national qualifications frameworks based on the SQCF
  • Berlin 2003 linked to the EHEA (higher education) and eventually to CEDEFOP (professional) and tried to establish common standards of quality
  • Berlin 2003 addressed APEL (accreditation of prior education and learning)
  • Bergen 2005 addressed assessment and other quality issues
  • Helsinki 2006 called for transatlantic co-operation in education
  • London Communiqué 2007 added lifelong learning as a requirement.

Current status of Bologna Process in bullets

  • Three ‘cycles’ in HE: Cycle 1 = Bachelor (or ‘Licence’, in French), Cycle 2 = Master, Cycle 3 = PhD[1]
  • There is a little-used “EU cv” format that is rigid in its use of qualifications and that is perhaps at best ‘in addition to’ employers’ own cv format requirements.
  • AP(E)L – assessment of prior education and learning – keeps changing its name but lifelong learning in the sense of permanent co-existence of work and education is becoming very mainstream. EU projects under “Leonardo” funding (e.g. CareerSpace, EuroPortic, eForminfo,) are moving to make this possible and portable from very low to very high levels.
  • Assessment must be carried out to previously published criteria and procedures
  • ECTS are emerging as a credit accumulation scheme. Normally 180 credits over three years for Bachelors and 60-120 credits over 1 or 2 years for Masters.
  • Learning outcomes are being claimed more often for programmes.
  • “Diploma” supplements are being introduced. These are extra statements to accompany the degree and:
  • Are factual statements of what the degree programme covered
  • Include ‘additional information’ e.g. necessity to study in two languages.
  • Can state what it entitles the holder to do next
  • Can not recommend equivalences/recognitions

For Peter?
So, if Peter’s degree has a recognised ECTS value (it does) and a diploma supplement (no, but a transcript and course description will help), he should be able to apply to any other university in Europe and, potentially, the US to continue his studies at Masters level. That, of course, assumes there is something called ‘Masters’ at the destination.

The snags
Currently, all Bachelor degrees are not equal. Some people assume, quite wrongly in my opinion, that nation X or nation Y has the only ‘good’ degrees and all degrees from that nation are ‘good’. It is more mixed than that and some nations (e.g. Italy) usually require more study and more research than others.

Moving on a level, some nations just do not have Masters degrees and others traditionally have a distinction between taught Masters and Masters by research. Peter’s probable Barcelona institution does not currently have anything called a Masters degree although work is at that level.

Where universities are self-regulated and centrally quality-assured rather than centrally-controlled, each university can create its own admission criteria. Sometimes quite reasonably, these can include requirements to speak one or more languages to a pre-set level or, more controversially, to have completed a previous course only offered by that institution.

International study needs
In all cases, you need to:

  1. meet the same entrance criteria as others or meet criteria that experts determine are ‘equivalent’ (not an exact science but gradually becoming more transparent)
  2. have the right visa/residence
  3. be able to pay on time
  4. be determined in finding the right person to whom you can explain your case.


Useful links


Useful overseas summary of the Bologna process:


[1] This is a translation. The French shorthand is ‘LMD’: Licence, Maître, Doctorat. “Doctor” is sometimes used as the English version but this process has not yet been applied beyond what the UK calls PhD.

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