Implementing Bologna: a Missed Chance?

A recent study shows that in Germany dropouts from university have significantly increased since Bologna has been introduced. Thirty-five percent of the bachelor students leave university without a degree. Alarming are the rates in engineering sciences: forty-eight percent of the students drop out.  At first glance, the conclusion that Bologna has failed seems convincing, considering that it was one of the goals of the Bologna-Process to reduce dropout rates. One of the authors of the studies comments on it in the online issue of the newspaper Die Zeit. In the interview, there are two remarkable statements. The first relates to a question of access. The second pushes forward to the issue how Bologna can succeed.

“In engineering sciences there still seems to be a culture of selecting students out. Suitably, the most difficult basic-subjects are taught in the first terms. The result is that students who would succeed if they were guided better and led to their study subject more systematically, fail.”

I am not at all against selection. Not everybody is made for studying every subject. Selection is important and it should, in the best interest of the students, occur early in the curriculum. Students should be forced to occupy themselves thoroughly with their study subject from beginning in order to find out whether their choice of subject was right. But we have to consider that our students come to university from school. They have to learn how to be a university student.  Hence, teaching, guidance and support is especially important at the beginning of the curriculum. If we want the right students to pass selection, we have to teach them how to be a university student. To put in provocative terms: Excellent students do not need teaching. And good teaching does not distinguish itself by only promoting a few excellent students, but by making good and average students better.

“If we want to have proper Bachelor curricula, we need to redesign university.  (…) The new curricula are a chance for student-centered teaching. (…) We have to go in this direction, if we want the Bachelor to be successful.”

I think this is a very important point. Not the Bologna system is the main problem, but its implementation. In Switzerland, the discussion about Bologna has mostly been reduced to discussing and complaining about assessments and credit points. This leads to Bologna be seen in a rather negative way. The main reproach is that Bologna transforms universities into schools. The consequence is that at most universities, Bologna has been implemented with the goal to change as few things as possible and not more than necessary. This is a very regretful attitude. We should stop see Bologna only as a burden, but as a chance. Bologna offers us the chance to basically think about university; to reflect who we are, whom we teach, what we teach and what skills our graduates should have (catchword learning outcomes).  We should see Bologna as an opportunity to build a new university. Therefore we should rethink university from scratch, free from any constraints. The questions we should all ask ourselves is: If I were to redesign university on a blank sheet of paper, what would it look like?

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity is closing. We are about to miss a great chance.