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Vol. 30 No. 4
July-August 2008

Bologna and Beyond: Opportunities and Obstacles

by Eva Åkesson, Maja Elmgren, and Kristina Edström

The Bologna process is a voluntary joint venture among 46 European countries, which has as its objective the creation of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010. The EHEA will cover all of Europe including European Union newcomers Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Its aim is to allow for degrees and qualifications awarded in one country to be understood and recognized in other countries, thereby facilitating mobility and enhancing employability. The EHEA’s overarching goals will be achieved by providing common tools and fostering cooperation in quality assurance. The common tools in the emerging EHEA, such as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, Diploma supplement, a three-cycle system, and qualification frameworks, all aim to provide a system that is easy to comprehend for students, institutions, and employers.

A Slow Start in Sweden
Sweden was one of the last countries within the Bologna family to implement the three-cycle system (bachelor, master, and Ph.D). The Bologna process has now encouraged a major reform of higher education in Sweden, which passed a bill known as New World–New University. It came into effect 1 July 2007 and brought about changes in the Higher Education Act and Higher Education Ordinance. Within the second cycle, a new two-year master’s degree has been introduced. The credit system has been reformed and is now aligned with the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. With the introduction of a three-cycle system, all degree descriptions have been reviewed and the degrees have been placed at either first, second, or third level.

The new degree descriptions are based on the expected learning outcomes of the student and are related to the Qualifications Framework of the Bologna Process. These are formulated for general qualifications (i.e., Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D.) and professional qualifications as objectives under three headings: knowledge and understanding, skills and abilities, and judgement and approach. Universities in Sweden have the autonomy to establish programs and decide the certain field of specialization and establish more precise requirements within the framework of the national qualification description. There is no external accreditation or validation prior to the start of a university program, with the exception of professional qualifications. The validation is performed by the universities’ internal quality assurance systems. However, all programs are evaluated periodically by an external quality assurance agency.

So, even though Sweden was one of the last countries to implement the three-cycle system, it carried out the reforms quickly and thoroughly. Universities have now formulated expected learning outcomes for each course/module and program.

From Teaching to Learning
One ambition with the Bologna process is to promote a shift from teaching to learning, from inputs to outcomes. Such a shift, it is thought, will be welcomed by most teachers and students in Sweden. The Bologna Process is also seen as an opportunity to leverage further educational reform; to enhance pedagogy, assessment, and quality assurance.

Another positive outcome of the Bologna Process is how it widens the perspective about education, from a focus mainly on knowledge as the learning outcome to competencies and skills. This is of great significance to chemistry education because of the strong tradition of lab practice. The competencies and skills of chemists from now on will be explicit in terms of learning outcomes. This will facilitate their educational progression and be advantageous for communicating with future employers.

The intentions were good, but what is the result of the Bologna Process? The report TRENDS V, Universities Shaping the European Higher Education Area, [by David Crosier, Lewis Purser, and Hanne Smidt, EUA 2007 (isbn: 9789078997023); available on the the European University Association website <>] states: “The focus has shifted from governmental actions, including legislation, to implementation of reforms within institutions, with broad support for the underlying idea of more student-centered and problem-based learning.” The authors of the report note a difference among countries that have only met the basic requirement with new legislation and those that have used the implementation as a strategy for further reforming their educational system.

For chemistry educators in Sweden, the critical question is: Did the universities and chemistry education make use of the opportunities for reform or did they stumble on the obstacles? Sweden was lagging behind at first but got more or less a jump-start in 2007. Those involved foresee a risk with a forced process and fear a consequence could be a structural reform instead of the desired change and quality enhancement of chemistry education.

Status Report for Chemistry in Sweden
In practice, the forced process of implementation has meant that the whole structure of courses available to chemistry students has had to be revised. Earlier, in Sweden, we gave students the choice of selecting among a large number of courses; which often resulted in only a few students per course at the advanced level. The implication of the Bologna process means not only a possible educational gain but also a necessary economical restructuring of the university education in chemistry for the whole of Sweden. This is a consequence of the problem of recruiting students to chemistry that we see in the whole western world today.

The concentration of fewer courses in chemistry as a result of Sweden’s educational reforms has been approached differently at different universities. At some universities, the new curricula, especially at the bachelor level, has been based on integrating knowledge from the different subdisciplines to develop new courses. This effort had a positive outcome since it generated intense discussions among lecturers from different disciplines (analytical-, inorganic-, organic-, physical-, and theoretical chemists and biochemists) as well as discussions about how mathematics, physics, and biology could be integrated into chemistry education.

The Bologna process and life-long learning. Reproduced from TRENDS V report—see text for reference.

A multidisciplinary approach to chemistry means that there must be a team of lecturers interacting and formulating the goals and learning outcomes for each specific course. Additionally, they must agree and clearly state how the course will fit into the progression of chemistry education. A drawback of this system is that it is difficult to find literature and materials that adequately cover the course contents. At other universities, a more traditional approach has been taken, with the different subdisciplines offering their own courses. This means that in Sweden different universities will be providing different routes to a degree in chemistry.

So far, most of the energy and time invested in the new education system has been for “laying out the track,” with some early steps toward formulating learning outcomes. A quick glance at some selected chemistry courses, at both bachelor’s and master’s levels, shows that Sweden will need more time to resolve differences among universities regarding specific skills and abilities, judgments and approaches, as well as knowledge and understanding needed to attain a degree in chemistry. The process can be summarized as “Nice try, try again.”

The European Chemistry Thematic Network (ECTN) has launched a 180-credit framework bachelor program in chemistry called the Chemistry EUROBACHELOR, which is intended to set a standard for chemistry higher education in Europe (see Sep-Oct 2004 CI, p. 11 and Jul-Aug 2007 CI, p. 12). The degree is designed to be comparable and easily readable in terms of learning outcomes, skills, and competences. So far, interest in the Eurobachelor has been mild in Sweden. The suggested framework would restrain the course curriculum and the students’ freedom of choice even more than the new Bologna-adapted education system we have reached in Sweden today. However, the international discussion around chemistry that was initiated by work on the Eurobachelor was very useful in Sweden and could be useful to countries outside Europe.

Meanwhile, the internal discussion within Sweden has resulted in a chemistry collaboration between three universities: Lund, Karlstad, and Uppsala. The purpose of the project is to enhance the quality of chemistry teaching by benchmarking the impact of educational reforms, sharing experiences, and establishing good practices. One of the strategies for the project is to compare the descriptors/learning outcomes for the bachelor’s and master’s degrees and for each module/course. The research so far suggests the different strategies have led to different outcomes. This poses interesting questions regarding the overall goals of the Bologna process, such as mobility, recognition, and employability.

New curricula and new expected learning outcomes might be influenced by many different parameters. The three different universities involved are different in many respects. Lund University has the largest chemistry department of the three selected. Karlstad University is the youngest and the chemistry department is the smallest. Uppsala University’s chemistry department combines both engineering and science education in a way that is distinct from the other two universities.

These differences influence how the universities have adapted to the Bologna process. The universities in Lund and Karlstad have found no reason to change their course structures, which are based on classical chemistry subdisciplines. The adaptation is mainly focused on developing expected learning outcomes. Uppsala University introduced a set of new thematic courses, with names like Chemical Principles, Chemical Reactions, and Structure and Function of Chemical Substances. Another novelty is joint studies for science and engineering students during the first year. This is in line with a general tendency in Sweden towards designing the different programs in a more similar way, where insight into research is emphasized in engineering programs and employability in science programs.

The project involves workshops in which lecturers and administrators from the three universities meet to discuss the different strategies they are employing to reach the goals outlined in the Higher Education Act. Between the workshops each university-specific group continues its discussion and works on assignments that have been developed during the workshops. The project will conclude two years from now. Hopefully, by that time the Bologna process as it pertains to chemistry in Sweden will have been more than just a paper tiger.

Eva Åkesson <[email protected]> is a professor at Lund University, Lund, Sweden, and is currently secretary of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE). Maja Elmgren works with the Office for Development of Teaching and Learning and is from the Department of Physical and Analytical Chemistry at Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. Kristina Edström is with the Department of Materials Chemistry, also at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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