Traditionally, students usually started their studies in Europe at the age of about 18, having completed primary and secondary education. To be admitted to higher education institutions, or tertiary education or post-secondary education as this is also known, students had to pass examinations. The examinations themselves as well as the admission procedure differed – and to a certain extent still do differ – from country to country. The system of higher education itself also differed in each country, with the level, lengths of courses, types of courses, academic titles, etc. varying according to historical traditions.
In recent years, there have been two major changes affecting the higher education system in Europe, the Bologna Process and Lifelong Learning (LLL):
The Bologna Process
The so-called Bologna Process was introduced to harmonise higher education in Europe. The process was named after the University of Bologna in Italy, where the Bologna declaration was signed by education ministers from 29 European countries in 1999.
The Bologna Process provides a three-level system of higher education in most European countries:
- The first (lowest) level is a bachelor’s degree, typically lasting three to four years.
- The second level is a master’s degree, typically lasting one to two years.
- The final level is a doctorate (PhD) which is usually quite specialised and may last between two and five years.
The title of the degree, e.g. Bachelor of Arts, abbreviated to BA, or a Master of Science, abbreviated to MSc, is placed after the holder’s name. Someone holding a doctorate is usually called “Dr”.
The advantages of this system are that it is now easier to use qualifications from one European country to apply for a job or a course in another. Increased compatibility between education systems makes it easier for students and job seekers to move within Europe. At the same time, the Bologna reforms help to make European universities and colleges more competitive and attractive to the rest of the world.
The system also recognises a grading system called the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System or ECTS. One academic year corresponds to 60 ECTS credits that are normally equivalent to 1500–1800 hours of total workload enabling the transfer and progression throughout the European Union.
More information about the Bologna system can be found here. Some higher education institutions in Europe also offer diploma courses in various subjects with less ECTS than for degree courses.
It has been recognised that learning should not only concern young people in educational institutions but is something that can affect everyone, at all stages in life and not only at the traditional educational institutions. In European Higher Education, supported by the European Union, this means that not only young people who passed university entrance exams now study at higher education institutions. There is a trend towards more mature students studying, part-time courses, students studying at universities without the traditional examination requirements and a variety of teaching methods.
Differences within the EU
Please note that although a lot has happened in Higher Education in Europe in recent years as mentioned above, there are still differences between the countries and changes are still occurring. Each country is adopting these principals slightly differently and national regulations should be checked.
More information about Lifelong Learning in the EU can be found here.