Author: Morningside

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Higher Education in the Commonwealth System

The Commonwealth of Nations was established in 1949 and is comprised of fifty-three independent countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific, representing roughly one-third of the world’s population. As an outgrowth of the former British Empire, the Commonwealth today seeks to unite its diverse member states through a set of common goals and values, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Among other initiatives, Commonwealth countries have attempted to establish a set of uniform quality standards for both primary and higher education through a subgroup known as the Commonwealth of Learning (COL). The organization’s objectives include improving educational access through distance education and open learning programs.

Universities from thirty-seven member states are also members of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), the world’s first and oldest international university network. With more than five hundred member institutions, the ACU promotes cooperation between universities in areas like research and scholarships, and seeks to establish best practices in the field of higher education.

Notably, many Commonwealth countries model their higher education systems after that of the United Kingdom. Higher education is divided by undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Courses are commonly held in universities or constituent colleges, and are also taught in specialist art institutions, business schools, and agricultural colleges.

Students in some Commonwealth countries, including Singapore and Tanzania, complete either a thirteenth year of high school or a set of comprehensive post-secondary examinations comparable to the “A Level” examinations in the United Kingdom. Bachelor’s degrees generally require three years for completion, though some programs may require four years or more. Entry to postgraduate programs usually requires an undergraduate qualification. Master’s programs are typically completed in 1 to 3 years, and doctoral programs generally require at least 3 years of full-time study. Lower-level undergraduate qualifications, including a variety of National Diplomas, Higher National Diplomas, certificates, and other professional qualifications are also widely available in Commonwealth countries.

Membership in the Commonwealth is entirely voluntary, and it remains the responsibility of individual member states to set their own standards and structures for higher education. This means that while there are many similarities between the higher education systems of Commonwealth countries, there is also tremendous diversity, reflecting the specific educational needs and goals of each member state.

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Higher Education Under the Bologna Process

In June 1999, education ministers from twenty-nine European countries met in Bologna, Italy, site of the oldest university in Europe, to develop a new framework for European higher education. In the resulting Bologna Declaration, the ministers claimed that “[a] Europe of Knowledge is now widely recognized as an irreplaceable factor for social and human growth.” By the end of the conference, they had established a structure that would standardize degree cycles and credit structures and promote student mobility across the continent. Known as the Bologna Process, this attempt to create a “Europe of Knowledge” has had an important impact on both larger educational structures and the lives of European youth during the past fifteen years.

The Bologna Process emerged from the larger movement towards European unity that swept the region during the 1990s, resulting most notably in the adoption of the euro as a common currency and the establishment of the Schengen area for freer cross-border movement. The education ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom met at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1998 to discuss the implications of such changes for the European education system. “The European process has very recently moved some extremely important steps ahead,” they acknowledged in what became known as the Sorbonne Joint Declaration, but “relevant as they are, they should not make one forget that Europe is not only that of the Euro, of the banks and the economy.” In order for Europe to truly unify, its citizens would have to “strengthen and build upon the intellectual, cultural, social, and technical dimensions of our continent.”

These ministers called the larger meeting in Bologna the following year, where they were joined by officials from across Europe in establishing the Bologna Process. The goal for the first decade was to establish a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) within which higher education systems would be comparable, compatible, and coherent.

The major components of the EHEA framework are uniform qualification cycles and a standardized system of credits. The first qualification cycle is roughly analogous to a bachelor’s degree, the second cycle requires completion of the first and results in a master’s degree, and the third necessitates the completion of the second and terminates in a doctoral degree. The length of the first cycle is between three and four years, the length of the second cycle is between one and two years, and the length of the third cycle is generally between three and four years, depending on the subject of study and the location of the training. In addition to providing a list of skills that students should have upon completion of each cycle, the EHEA framework establishes credit levels necessary for each level: 180-240 for the first cycle and an additional 90-120 for the second, although credit levels at the doctoral level are still left to the discretion of individual countries. Quality assurance is emphasized throughout, with a monitoring working group tasked with overseeing implementation of the framework across the continent.

The impact of the Bologna Process and EHEA has been far reaching. For one, universities across Europe have been obliged to modify their degree programs in order to comply with the new standards. Beyond that, the Bologna Process has served as a model for higher education reform in other regions of the world, such as Africa and Latin America. It has also played a pivotal role in trends toward greater European mobility, particularly for high skilled workers. In addition to more expansive student exchange programs, the Bologna Process has made the transfer of degrees across countries in Europe both easier and more reliable. An employer in France can hire a young Slovakian worker with confidence, knowing that the education they received in their home country is equivalent to the one they would have received in Paris.