Terry Mitchell looks at the problems of implementing the Bologna process.

The fog in the channel which sometimes cuts off mainland Europe from the UK is lifting again, and those chemistry academics in the UK who are looking carefully eastwards (and southwards) are not completely happy with what they see. The introduction of the integrated master programmes, such as MChem and MSci, seemed to be bringing UK university chemical education more in line with that in continental Europe. However, the signing of the Bologna agreement by 29 education ministers (including the UK minister) in 1999 has led to a rapid change in degree structures in many European countries. One of the goals of the declaration was to adopt ’a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, also through the implementation of the Diploma Supplement, in order to promote European citizens’ employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system’.

Eleven more states, including Russia, have now joined the Bologna process, which aims to create an open European Higher Education Area by 2010. Staff in this ’area’ are currently busy designing a European (HE) Qualifications Framework, a task set by the 40 ministers when they met again in Berlin in September 2003.

What is this framework likely to involve? It seems that there will be only three qualifications which form the norm, and which many (although not all) will call Bachelor, Master and PhD. The Bachelor (formally called the first cycle degree) will be a three-year degree in almost all of the countries that have already decided to introduce it. Very few countries are still in the process of debate! Thus the five-year first degree previously typical of continental Europe will soon disappear. So far, a progression from Bachelor to Master to PhD is uppermost in many people’s minds, but the idea of allowing high-quality first cycle graduates to obtain a PhD without formally completing a master cycle has been written into the rules, and discussions on this point will need to take place in Europe on a subject area basis to try to find a consensus, for example among chemists.

These momentous changes will of course have a considerable effect on the UK, even though many there seem to be hoping that Bologna will pass them by. One basic question is how the UK integrated master will fit in with the Bologna qualifications framework. Will UK MChem graduates be seen abroad as having basic Bachelor degrees when they are looking for PhD positions or jobs? And how will UK universities deal with the continental Bachelors who will soon be looking for places abroad to do a PhD? Will they take on these Bachelors, who will have had only three years of study, thus discriminating against their own graduates, or insist on a (five-year) Master qualification as the entry point for the PhD? Will there even be one single UK position, or will the Scots go a separate way?

There needs to be an open debate on all these points very soon. A starting point could be the ’Eurobachelor’ qualification framework, developed by ECTN, the European Chemistry Thematic Network (of which the RSC is a member), which was approved last autumn by the Federation of European Chemical Societies. The debate is in fact scheduled to begin this June with a conference entitled Chemistry Studies in the European Higher Education Area to be held at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany.

Terry Mitchell is professor of chemistry at the University of Dortmund in Germany and a national representative on the IUPAC Committee on Chemical Education