Teaching and Learning: A Journey from the Margins to the Core in European Higher Education Policy

Cristina Sin


This chapter analyses how the topic of teaching and learning has evolved in the political discourse of the Bologna Process and of the policy actors who shape European higher education policy. This exercise is particularly stimulating because learning and teaching evolved from a topic of little significance to a forefront concern and a dimension presented as capable of making the difference for the success of the proposed reforms. It is the rise in prominence, the underlying rationales and the dimensions of teaching and learning that the chapter intends to disentangle. Based on an analysis of the central policy documents of the Bologna Process and key reports of other influential supra-national actors, a proposition is put forward that attention to teaching and learning became focal when this dimension began to be perceived as critical to ensure that higher education served the mission assigned to it by policy-makers, primarily of a utilitarian and economic nature. In making this claim, it is suggested that this evolution has been largely determined by the European Commission (EC) and the OECD as prominent supra-national agents and vectors of globalization. The chapter also cautions against the alienation of academics from policy-making which impacts on teaching and learning, an academic territory by excellence.

The Wider Policy Space and the Propagation of Policy Issues

Although dwelling mainly on teaching and learning as it evolved within the Bologna Process, the chapter acknowledges that the Process has unfolded in a wider context of policy development bearing the imprint of globalization (Amaral and Neave 2009; Grek 2010; Lawn and Lingard 2002; Lingard et al. 2005; Martens and Wolf 2009). Lawn and Lingard (2002) described the emergence of a European policy space in educational governance, while Lingard et al. (2005) argued that globalization and its effects on policy processes have led to the emergence of a global field in education policy, one consequence being that policy text production now reflects the diaspora of policy ideas which circulate rapidly across the globe. For Lawn and Lingard (2002), the construction of a common policy agenda occurs through a new kind of 'magistrature of influence' which assumed two forms: participation in the committees, task-force groups and similar working groups of supranational entities; and dissemination of research studies, reports, and statistics. The influence of the wider policy context is especially pertinent in the case of the European Commission, given the role it plays in the Bologna Process. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) limits the Commission's legal competence in education. Covered by the principle of subsidiarity, education is firmly placed under the competence of member states. Their responsibility 'for the content of teaching and the organization of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity' is acknowledged (Article 165 of the TFEU). The Union's contribution is limited to encouraging cooperation between these and to supporting and supplementing their action. Yet, the Commission has indirectly overcome its limited capacity of statutory intervention, exerting influence on European higher education policy by alternative means (see Neave (2005) for a detailed discussion). The Commission's integration in the formal structures of the Bologna Process has given it additional purchase over higher education. Following the invitation to join the Bologna Follow-Up Group in 2001, with equal standing to individual member states, it has greatly determined the direction and progress of the reform. Martens and Wolf argue that the Commission was perceived as a necessary infrastructure and support element, 'like a coat hanger…something to hang the reform on' (Martens and Wolf 2009), therefore instrumental in the promotion of the goals of the Process. Many of the Bologna initiatives have mainstreamed solutions previously developed by the European Commission (e.g. ECTS), while the EC has been providing financial incentives for HE cooperation and projects in line with the Bologna objectives and has been funding national Bologna promoters, information activities and the ministerial meetings (Keeling 2006). The Commission also funds key stakeholder organizations in the Bologna process (e.g. EUA, ENQA, ESU, etc.). From the standpoint of the Commission, the Bologna Process has been harnessed to serve the agenda of economic growth and international competitiveness outlined in the Lisbon strategy. Thus, despite its initial independence from the Commission, the Process has become increasingly tied into the former's ambitions of European integration. For Martens and Wolf (2009), the EU now has more 'options and responsibilities in the field of education policy due to the Bologna Process', a paradoxical development when considered against its initial exclusion. Currently, the Bologna Process is strongly associated with the European Union although its signatory countries go far beyond its territory.

Keeling (2006) claims that the Commission developed an influential discourse on higher education in Europe. It considered higher education as 'purposeful' and 'economically beneficial' for both individuals and society and its activities had to respond to the needs of the labour market and industry. In the context of the Bologna Process, the Commission portrayed learning as an 'inherently productive activity' through which students accumulated and generated knowledge for personal and social benefit. It also promoted the idea that educational activities and outputs were 'measurable', e.g. educational achievements are measured at the level of the individual through ECTS credits (Keeling 2006). The Bologna reforms stood as mechanisms for increasing the employability of university graduates. In fact, as Bologna progressed it placed increased emphasis on the participation of employers in curricular design (Sin and Neave 2014). The utilitarian mission of higher education thus extended into the realm of teaching and learning. Indeed, the Commission's interpretation of higher education's mission as vocational goes back to the 1990s (Neave 2005). For Keeling (2006), the dominance of this interpretation limits alternative understandings of higher educational objectives, such as intellectual development, personal enrichment or the simple satisfaction of curiosity. The Bologna Declaration initially rejected an instrumental view of higher education by presenting it as a vehicle for upholding and promoting European culture. Later on, the London (2007) and Leuven (2009) Communiqués, too, referred to four missions of higher education: preparing students for life as active citizens in a democratic society; preparing students for their future careers and enabling their personal development; creating and maintaining a broad, advanced knowledge base and stimulating research and innovation. Yet, various scholars have noted that the Process has gradually moved from cultural and political rationales to economic ones (Huisman and van der Wende 2004; Tomusk 2004). For Martens and Wolf (2009) this can be attributed to the inclusion of the European Commission into the Process. For the Commission, therefore, education represents an economic engine, a lynchpin in its strategy of international competitiveness. The advent of globalization saw higher education transformed into a key driver in the knowledge economy, 'the new star ship in the policy fleet for governments around the world' (Olssen and Peters 2005). Concerns with efficiency, results orientation and the achievement of outcomes have come to the fore. As Grek (2010) noted, since 2000 the EC's education policy-making tools have changed, with greater emphasis on indicators and benchmarking, to drive change and push the 'growth and jobs' agenda forward. The OECD, too, has had considerable impact on the global stage of educational policy. Although its central focus has been 'steadfastly and unwaveringly within the imperium of economics' (Amaral and Neave 2009), education has been consolidating its position among the activities which attracted OECD's attention as an area of application within the overall driving imperative of economics. The effects of globalization in education policy have largely been a consequence of the OECD's activities. Its powerful discourse began to influence education in the mid-nineties further to the increasing visibility and credibility of its work on cross-national, comparative educational indicators and statistics (Martens and Wolf 2009). Nowadays, the OECD appears as a trend-setter with an authoritative voice in education policy. In this respect, scholars (Amaral and Neave 2009; Martens and Wolf 2009) have referred to its mode of governance as 'opinion formation'. Grek (2010) claims that the OECD established their authority through the generation and management of sophisticated knowledge, ever more determinant for the orientation of education policy, giving birth to the so-called knowledge politics. She further argues that the policy agendas of the EU and the OECD have been converging, in a union cemented by knowledge and mutual policy learning. The result has been a growing alliance between these two influential actors operating in the European education space, constructing policy problems together, articulating and diffusing new norms and principles (Grek 2010).

Both the EU and the OECD's role in shaping education, its goals and its organization is already acknowledged in policy circles. Their role is mediated by a powerful discourse of globalization, more political than educational, which constructs solutions, produces new conceptual categories or redefines older ones (Lawn and Lingard 2002). The two organizations also coincide in their modus operandi (Amaral and Neave 2009; Grek 2010). In the absence of enforcement tools over member states, persuasion through discourse, networking, soft law and indirect approaches are employed to summon policy consensus and shape opinion favourable to policy-in-the-making when legislative action is not an option (Amaral and Neave 2009).

In the following, attention turns to the emergence and the construction of teaching and learning as a policy problem. An analysis of relevant policy documents has been undertaken in search for the contexts in which teaching and learning has been mentioned, its dimensions, the rationales invoked and the suggested recommendations. Teaching and learning has evolved from a topic of little significance in the early days of the Bologna Process to a forefront concern and a dimension deemed crucial for the success of the intended reforms. The chapter sets out to explore its ascendant trajectory and the likely reasons behind it. It argues that the evolution of this policy issue has increasingly reflected the discourse promoted by the European Commission and by the OECD, resulting in the subordination of teaching and learning to the imperatives of globalization and economy. Under a logic of utilitarianism, performance and efficiency teaching and learning is exhorted to align to market needs and to develop employability/entrepreneurship.

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