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Education Reform: Back to Bologna

The beginning is a good place to start.

The university as we know it today came to us from Italy. There, in the northern city of Bologna, the idea first found its footing roughly a thousand years ago. In the 11th century, Italian scholars of law coalesced to form what is widely recognized as the world’s longest serving research and teaching institution: the University of Bologna, the “nourishing mother of studies” (alma mater studorium). The history of the idea of the university since then has been one of transnational imitation, accident, and purposeful innovation. It’s a history that shouldn’t be forgotten in debates about how to escape from under the dark clouds—weighing heavy with an indebted and underemployed generation—that currently beleaguer American higher education.

Around the 12th century—about one hundred years after Bologna—theologians congregated to form universities at Paris and Oxford. Another hundred years later, a dispute with townies in Oxford led fleeing scholars to found a cousin school at Cambridge. Imitators continued to percolate around Europe for several more centuries. History pivoted again in the early 19th century with the German invention of the modern research doctorate.

The first American university, Harvard, meanwhile appeared in the 17th century in that other famous Cambridge as an echo of British trends. Harvard then sparked its own imitators on its side of the Atlantic. Cozy liberal arts colleges and huge land-grant universities later proliferated across the continent, each borrowing fragments of earlier institutions as their seeds.

Also in the 19th century, American students went abroad and imported the German research doctorate. After some tinkering at prominent East Coast institutions, this became the American PhD. The PhD then developed restless legs of its own, especially thanks to the advent of international university rankings, and spurred the Oxbridge DPhil in the early 20th century. American higher education exported other degrees, too—notably professional graduate degrees like the MBA and JD.

Back in Europe, universities had evolved in separate national contexts, giving rise to a jumbled mess of difficult-to-compare degrees and standards. The European Union might have created a common labor market, but educational parochialism presented barriers to mobility. So at the turn of the 21st century, European policy makers went back to Bologna to begin negotiating elements of a supranational higher education system. Known as the Bologna Process, these negotiations have worked to harmonize the various national systems within Europe, as well as to borrow selectively from the United States as an inspiration for reforms.

An important result has been a standardized degree architecture that progresses through three stages: three-year bachelor’s degrees, one- or two-year master’s degrees, and three-year research doctorates. The degrees themselves might vary by name, but the underlying structure now predominates. This has—at least in theory—opened up new markets and cultures to young Europeans.

In reality, young people in both Europe and America face grim economic prospects and diminished social mobility. Youth unemployment and underemployment rates sit comfortably in the double digits from California to Greece, even topping fifty percent in some places. Yet policy makers in the United States seem inclined to cast the problem in very local terms. Public universities are in crisis. The University of California is in crisis. Legal education is in crisis. And so on.

The American concept of higher education is one of the great—and notoriously difficult to valuate—export goods of current era. Its kernel is at the core of leading institutions throughout the world, including expat campuses of schools like NYU (Abu Dhabi) and Yale (Singapore). But the United States didn’t invent the university. The university is, instead, a thousand-year-old global product. Its current form owes to centuries of transnational interaction and evolution. No understanding of the crisis facing higher education is complete without this point.

So, what does history have to say about how to move American higher education forward? Go back to Bologna. European experimentation has produced a workable model of transnational portability and expanded access to opportunity. European students also accrue less debt, thanks to better public funding and shorter courses of study, but also thanks to widened choice in schools.

The idea here shouldn’t be to blindly emulate, though. Going back to Bologna should mean reopening and broadening negotiations about transnational harmonization. It should mean embracing the global dimensions of the history of higher education and the problems it faces.

Education is fundamentally about mobility, at once economic, social, intellectual, and geographic. It’s about going places you couldn’t have gone without it. The economic piece of the puzzle might be beyond today’s policy makers in a direct sense. A return to Bologna with a broader agenda could at least keep the other pieces in play. With luck and ingenuity, the economics might also follow.

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