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Europe Seeks to Standardize Degrees

Universities introduce Eurobachelor to promote comparability between chemistry programs

September 20, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 38

It's never been possible to talk about "the" European educational system as if there were only one. That's not likely to change anytime soon, but efforts are under way across Europe to make it easier to compare degrees. In response to those efforts, an undergraduate chemistry degree called the Eurobachelor is in the works.

The catalyst for these changes is the Bologna Declaration, signed in 1999 by education ministers from 29 European countries. An additional 11 countries have since joined. The Bologna Declaration seeks to create a "European Higher Education Area" by 2010. As decided at the follow-up conference in Berlin last September, the system will be based on three degree cycles--bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. degrees.

One of the biggest steps being undertaken is the creation of bachelor's degrees, something practically unheard of in continental Europe. The new bachelor's degrees must be a minimum of three years, which is how long most of them are likely to be. (A few countries may opt for a four-year bachelor's degree.) The three-year bachelor's degree represents a big change for most European universities, where undergraduate degrees, which are known by a variety of names, have generally been five-year programs.

To promote comparability among degrees in various institutions and countries and to ease student mobility, the new bachelor's degrees will be based on a credit system, another relatively recent addition to European systems. The European Credit Transfer System was established to allow students to receive credit for work done at other institutions and to encourage them to study abroad. In the new system, credits are defined so that a year of full-time study equals 60 credits.

The credit system will form the "backbone" of the Bologna process, says Terence N. Mitchell, a chemistry professor at the University of Dortmund, in Germany. The credits are being apportioned differently than in the U.S., where credits are generally based on the number of contact hours in the classroom or laboratory as a surrogate for the total amount of time a student spends on courses. Instead, the European credits will be based on the student's total workload.

"Since it's a workload-based system, we want to find out and react to the amount of work that students actually have to put in to complete the program," Mitchell says. "We're trying to help the students by looking at the amount of work that is being done."

In addition, Mitchell believes that the workload system will give students more flexibility in designing electives. "You can design your electives better if you can quantify the amount of work that is done."

EACH UNIVERSITY will be required to provide students with a "diploma supplement," which can be considered something of a "super transcript." In addition to providing information about the student and which courses he or she took, the diploma supplement will include information about the national educational system, making it easier to compare programs at schools in separate countries.

The Eurobachelor program, chemistry's contribution to the Bologna process, started as part of an effort called Tuning Educational Structures in Europe, the so-called Tuning Project. The project originally included seven subjects, including chemistry, and has expanded to nine subjects. Launched in 2000, the Tuning Project was the academic community's answer to the challenge laid down by the education ministers.

"The declaration was written without asking the universities whether they thought it was a good idea," Mitchell says. "A group of people who had been involved in European activities had the idea that we had to have a project from the university side to react to the political challenges that the ministers had written down."

Mitchell became involved with the Tuning Project through the European Chemistry Thematic Network, an organization of university chemistry departments and national chemistry societies. ECTN was asked to assemble a group of people to work on the Tuning Project. "The result of our deliberations in chemistry was to come up with the Eurobachelor," Mitchell says.

The Eurobachelor suggests a framework for the undergraduate degree but refrains from providing curricular guidance. "Because of the current disparity in the way Europe works, we very quickly realized that it would be counterproductive to work in terms of curricula, [so we decided to] work in terms of outcomes," Mitchell says. "In other words, what should a bachelor in chemistry be able to do? What skills, what competences, when he or she finishes the degree?"

Starting from this list of outcomes, individual universities then design their own curricula within the constraints set forth by their national governments. Some governments are much more restrictive than others in dictating what universities must do, Mitchell says. The group decided that trying to dictate exactly how much of each area of chemistry to cover would lead to so many conflicts that it would be pointless.

Mitchell realizes that "outcomes" cannot be completely divorced from the curriculum. The description of the Eurobachelor outlines a number of aspects of chemistry that students should "become conversant with." These subjects include a variety of topics in organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. The document also suggests that "modules" in analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, and biological chemistry be mandatory, while subjects such as computational chemistry, chemical technology, macromolecular chemistry, biochemistry, and biophysics should be semi-optional (meaning that students select modules from within a range of offerings).

"IN THE DOCUMENT [describing the Eurobachelor], you will find a list of chemistry themes that we said should be covered at the bachelor level. In that sense it's curriculum, but not in any detailed sense," he says. "We do not suggest to institutions how much time they spend on inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry. We simply say that our recommendation is that you should have a compulsory core to cover these basic subjects in chemistry and include some mathematics, some physics, and biological chemistry."

The compulsory core of the Eurobachelor is recommended as at least 90 credits, or half of the three-year program. "Some countries will go for more. Other countries will grumble because they've traditionally had less compulsory stuff and more flexibility," Mitchell says. "You have a great deal of flexibility within the core. You have the flexibility to decide how much time you want to spend on inorganic, organic, physical, biological, math, and physics. That's up to you."

Bengt Jergil, a retired biochemistry professor at the University of Lund, in Sweden, where he was the director of undergraduate studies, has been involved with the Eurobachelor discussions from the beginning. He expects that implementing the Eurobachelor will have minimal impact on undergraduate programs in Sweden. "The Eurobachelor was designed to cover more or less the minimum common denominator of chemistry in the chemistry programs of the different countries," he says. Sweden already requires more than this minimal amount.

The Eurobachelor concept so far is unique to chemistry, but Mitchell expects that similar programs will be developed in physics, mathematics, and geology.


andates that the first-cycle degree be "relevant to the European labor market as an appropriate level of qualification," so one potential concern is the employability of students. "There are all sorts of political things in the background which you're not supposed to forget," Mitchell says. "This whole business is about decreasing the amount of time that students spend at university and producing graduates at an earlier age who will be competent but not as overcompetent as they would have been under the old system."

European industry is used to five-year degrees and may be reluctant to hire someone with only three years of university, some people think. "Industry is having to rethink its ideas and see whether they can see openings for students who have finished at this level," Mitchell says. "Where they are thinking about it properly, they are starting to realize that in this globalized world, this sounds like a good idea because you will be getting people who are educated to a high basic standard. They'll be younger and more flexible, and therefore they'll be cheaper. I think in five years' time the employability question will no longer arise."

In a speech delivered at a conference on "Chemistry Studies in the European Higher Education Area," held in Dresden, Germany, in June, Henning Hopf, president of the German Chemical Society, said: "In Germany and in several other European countries, there exists no traditional job market for students who leave the university with a bachelor's degree only; the bachelor education traditionally does not qualify for a job in these countries. Clearly, both industry and the university have to make all efforts to position these new degrees within the job market to allow our graduates to find appropriate and adequate jobs."

To forestall fears about the quality of Eurobachelor programs, ECTN is launching a pilot program testing a "Eurobachelor label," which will essentially be an accreditation program.

"Because of the way programs have always been run and because we have had these many systems, our experience suggests that recognition, at least at the beginning, of the new bachelor programs will be a problem," Mitchell says. "We don't want these problems because we all think that we will give our students a good bachelor education and a sufficient bachelor education for them to get jobs or transfer to master's programs."

The accreditation is not intended to rank courses according to quality, although quality will certainly be considered when evaluators make site visits. The main goal will be to determine whether the program as a whole fits in the Eurobachelor framework. ECTN has asked the European Commission to provide funding for a year-and-a-half pilot project.

There are still some concerns to work out. For example, British universities have long had a system based on three-year bachelor's degrees. In recent years, a number of chemistry programs have introduced so-called integrated master's degrees, four-year undergraduate programs leading directly to a master's in chemistry. There is uncertainty whether such degrees will be recognized in other European countries as adequate preparation for entry into Ph.D. programs or whether they will be seen simply as a type of bachelor's degree.

European chemists--or at least the organizations representing them--are buying into the Eurobachelor idea. It was adopted by the Federation of European Chemical Societies General Assembly in October 2003 and by ECTN at its April 2003 meeting.

Even with the Bologna Declaration and the Eurobachelor, Europe will not have a single higher education system, but the various systems will be more compatible while retaining their individuality.


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