One of our students is spending her Erasmus year abroad in Dublin. She visits me during her reading week break and when I ask her what’s it like there, she tells me it’s “Bologna well applied.” I smile at her candid verdict, cringing inwardly, and ask her what she means.

Well, this year she’s being educated in the usual British-style higher education method, which the Irish seem to have imported: lectures for 100 to 300 students, group seminars with up to 20 undergrads and tutorials for around 8. I ask her to consider how to apply this, for instance, to our first-year ‘20th Century English Literature’ class: 1 lecturer could cover the 210 students registered (plus 30 repeaters), but we’d need to split students, not counting repeaters, into 10 seminar groups, and 26 tutorial groups. Instead, we make do with 3 teachers (lecturers + TA, all combined), running classes of around 70 students, with perhaps up to 20% abandonment rate. No surprise, as we cannot give all undergrads the personalised attention they require.

The Bologna Declaration was signed, back in 1999, to back up the creation of a European Higher Education Area, based on the twin ideas of a common credit transfer system and a double-cycle system of education (ideally, a 3-year BA followed by a 2-year MA). 29 countries signed up, with 47 now on board. Absurdly, the MA degrees were first introduced in 2006, followed by the BA degrees in 2008. Things have been so badly organized that in this short time we have already have to reorganise the MAs. We used to have two: one for language, one for Literature; now we have a single one with two itineraries, constantly on the brink on being cancelled by the local Government for lack of students. This is no wonder in a system which first introduced the MA, as our first class of BA graduates, to whom the MA should have been addressed originally, is finishing this year.

Then, there’s the ‘little’ matter of local cultural traditions. In Spain we used to have a 5-year ‘Licenciatura’ system, split into a first cycle (3 years, based on compulsory subjects) and a second cycle (2 years, based on elective subjects). We dismantled this around 1999 to introduce shorter 4-year ‘Licenciaturas’ in 2002, I think, that, anyway, most students took 5 years to complete. Then came the 4-year ‘Grados’ which were the result of the pressures exerted by small provincial universities, afraid of losing all MA students to bigger universities after a 3-year BA. The result? It’s a mighty mess when it comes to Erasmus exchanges, and does not contribute at all to building a homogeneous European space. Now, I’m told, we’ll soon introduce, finally!, a 3-year BA followed by a 2-year MA: in short, the old ‘Licenciatura’ but with separate degrees and prices for each part. Well, not quite the old ‘Licenciatura’ as in the meantime secondary education has been, um, ‘destroyed’ would be the right word.

In contrast, though I’m not very well informed, my guess is that Britain (and Ireland) have done nothing to adapt themselves to Bologna, as, well, Bologna was based, quite patronisingly, on what they did. Bologna well applied, indeed, but not in the sense my student meant. It’s very frustrating to be told again and again by students spending their Erasmus year in Britain (and Ireland) that there they work very hard there, and read plenty. I do not doubt the capacity of my British (and Irish) colleagues but although I do support the good intentions of the Bologna declaration, either the accompanying practice of continuous assessment does not fit our university system or our university system does not fit the practice. For sheer lack of teaching resources.

I would not go back to the system of lectures in gigantic classes with no contact whatsoever with teachers, followed by impersonal final exams that we used to suffer in the ‘Licenciatura’ but, clearly, we are surviving on the teachers’ good will to make up for structural changes that never happened. It’s like, if you allow me, the change to winter time at the end of October, which shortens daylight for one hour in the evening. I guess this is fine for Northern countries which shut up shop at 5, but with long days running until 8 for many people, I don’t see what we’re saving at all here in the South.

This, I believe, has been overlooked just as local needs and problems were overlooked by this badly applied Bologna.