University education in the European Union is largely public, and in order to facilitate the freedom of employment and settlement throughout the Union that citizens of EU member states are guaranteed, the 28 EU members, as well as additional signatory states within Europe, have worked to establish cohesion in the higher education systems throughout the region. This work has been, and continues to be, accomplished through a series of meetings and agreements known as the Bologna Process. Proposed at the University of Bologna in 1999, it is an effort to unify the way in which university degrees are implemented and recognized across all participating countries. Prior to the establishment of the Bologna Process, each nation decided its education policy independently from one another. In theory, having unified standards across all member states to facilitate the recognition of degrees and therefore mobility of employment makes sense. However, in practice the standards have been applied in varying implementations on the national level by different governments. Since the beginning of this year, university students in Spain have been facing the prospect of economic and educational hardships as a direct result of the Spanish Government’s changing implementation of the Bologna Process.
There are clear benefits to the overall implementation of the Bologna Process in Europe. Paloma Fernandez Mira, an undergraduate student at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) who is currently spending her third year of university at Tufts, noted that, in Spain, Bologna “has improved the education system in the sense that it is more oriented towards practical applications [of learned material] and it gives more value to continuous evaluation in the classroom.”
Spain proceeded with implementing Bologna differently than many other countries in the EU, and this incongruity is what has driven this year’s proposed changes. When Spain initially implemented the agreements, it used four-year undergraduate degrees, followed by a one-year Masters, known as the 4+1 system. Meanwhile, the majority of the rest of the EU member states used a three-year undergraduate degree and a two-year Masters, known as the 3+2 system. Earlier this year the Spanish Ministry of Education proposed a change in the higher education system to the 3+2 implementation. In both implementations of Bologna, the total time needed to complete an undergraduate and graduate degree is five years, but students from countries with the 3+2 system were not having their degrees recognized by those countries with the 4+1 system, and vice-versa.
Spanish Minister of Education José Ignacio Wert claims that the switch to the 3+2 system will force Spanish universities to get their courses in line with those in the rest of Europe. Moreover, he adds, it will allow for students from elsewhere in Europe to come to Spain more easily as their degrees will now be recognized. In an interview with the Financial Times, he explained, “We are currently isolated from the rest of Europe. We currently don’t recognize graduates from other countries with a three-year degree, even if they come from Cambridge.”
The trouble for Spaniards comes from the fact that the change in structure of the higher education system will result in harsh financial implications for students. Annually, undergraduate degrees cost between €1000 and €2000, and graduate degrees run approximately €4000 to €5000 per year. Under the 3+2 implementation of Bologna, graduate degrees will cost the same amount annually as they currently do, but will now last two years instead of just one, resulting in increased financial hardships in a country where many students already struggle to pay for their education as it is. Darío Blanco Gómez de Barreda, a law student at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares and former cultural mentor for the Tufts in Madrid program, pointed out that higher education in Spain is “increasingly becoming less accessible for the average student…[and] in most public universities even the most basic services are currently at stake.” Increased tuition will result in higher barriers of access to university education for many Spanish students. Nevertheless Minister Wert claims that the higher tuition costs are being implemented in an effort to boost the performances of the universities.
José Ignacio Conde-Ruiz, professor of economics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, said to the Financial Times that the change to the three-year undergraduate degree would ultimately benefit students, as many “now have difficulties going abroad.” He also pointed out that the changes to the system as a result of Bologna would improve the quality of education that students would be able to receive, as there are currently “no incentives for good teaching and good research” under today’s implementation.
When speaking with current and former students of the Spanish university system, one gets a very different impression of the effects of the Spanish implementation of Bologna than that given by officials of the Ministry of Education. Juan Blasco Palacios, who completed his undergraduate degree at the UAM and currently lives in Dublin, noted that the worst part of Bologna is “the cost increase” as Spanish students will be required “to pay more for the same education” as they received previously, while “the best [aspect is] the unification of the [higher education system] in Europe” to allow for simplified freedom of mobility.
The question for Spain, then, is how to balance the implementation of improvements to the higher education system while still making it accessible and realistic for students to attend. Gustavo Flórez Malagon, who is currently completing a Masters at the UAM and studied at Tufts from 2012-2013 added that “the problem [with the change from 4+1 to 3+2]…comes when students or families who…had been facing much smaller [tuition] fees…now have to pay more than twice the original price” and that “for those who could barely afford it before, it certainly has become unaffordable in the present.”