Inter-Cultural Dimensions of Contemporary Higher Education: Modernization and Internationalization

 Tolya Stoitsova, Evelina Christova

 

The themes related to the modernization and internationalization of higher education are multi-layered, inter-related, and dynamic, and could hardly be approached as being just two separated one from the other topics. The processes of modernization of national educational systems are inseparably linked to the processes of making the educational systems around the world adhere to the context of the globalization economic exchange, and that is valid to a very definite degree for the member states of the EU, following the launch of the Bologna Process and with the adoption of the Strategy “Europe 2020”.

The Bologna Process launched in 1999 is aimed at the creation of an European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010 through the introduction of a three cycle system of comparable educational degrees – Bachelor, Master, and PhD/Doctor, of the ECTS (European credits transfer system) for assigning credits and the introduction of European dimensions for quality and dismantling the existing hindrances to the free movement of students and university lecturers in the European zone [1]. And while one could oblige with the statement that the first two goals have been successfully achieved, it is not so with the issues of measuring of the quality and with the dismantling of all the barriers to the mobility which are therefore still present in the agendas of the working meetings of the relevant Council of Europe Committees. The Leuven Statement (Communique) [2] of 2009 [3] puts again the emphasis on the theme of lifelong learning and presents the focus of the targets for the consolidation of the European Higher Education Area by 2020.

Marked by intelligence, sustainability and involvement, the economy of the European Union should achieve five objectives by 2020 – on employment, innovation, education, social inclusion and climate/energy [4]. Each member state adopts its own national targets in view of the common ones, taking into account the possibilities of the country in the specific area. And while at the launching of the Bologna Process in 1999 Bulgaria was still not a member of the EU, when the goals for Europe for 2020 are being defined it is already  one of the member states and regularly reports on its advancement in the European semester [5]. One of the three monitored areas is namely that connected to reforms for stimulation of growth, where one observes how the structural reforms encourage the research and development activities, the education and the remaining European goals, as well as the progress that is being achieved in the following of the national tasks related to them.

   In the attainment of the goals connected to the education sphere, Bulgaria is guided by the strategic documents adopted within the framework of the Bologna Process, as well as by the Strategy “Europe 2020” the basic principles of which are the following:

  • Wide access to higher education, increase by 2020 of the comparative part of the persons with completed higher education to  40% (36% for Bulgaria [6]);
  • Stimulation of students’ and tutors’ mobility, and
  • Stimulation of education through lifelong learning and the attainment of additional qualification and re-qualification of the work force, which should support its re-structuring in areas of increased demand.

Currently, active work is under way on a draft document of the European Commission which should provide the common framework and direction of the processes of modernizing the systems of higher education in the EU member states, and the document is to be presented in the fall of the current 2012. In connection with the elaboration of that document, which is to be presented by the European Commissioner on Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, it is necessary for us to make the following clarification. The Education, Youth, Culture and Sport (EYC) Council overviews pre-school, school, professional and higher education, as well as the issues of lifelong learning. The themes in the area of scientific research and of innovations are considered basically in the compatibility format, in the presence of the ministers of economy and the ministers of higher education and scientific research, depending on how exactly the division of responsibilities in the relevant states is set. Even only one careful look at the division of the formats of the Council of Europe [7] shows that the approach is synergetic and that the targets set in the Strategy for sustainable development could not be viewed and correspondingly achieved separately, for themselves alone.

The engagements to which we have pledged before the EC by becoming a member state reflect just one part of the process of modernization of higher education that Bulgaria is undergoing. Yet another content-full part is the follow-up to the world-wide trends, which in some aspects are coinciding (and even overlapping) with the documents adopted within the framework of the EC, but in other aspects are seriously ahead of them. In that respect there are various classifications of the schools for higher learning around the world, which are presenting different points of view [8], and versatile and various forums are being held.

Speaking of modernization of the higher education it is not at all advisable to lead a dialogue “in principle”; one should instead take into account the specifics of any concrete area of education, as well as the regional and the international characteristics. And last but not least, considering the theme of the forum, to keep in mind that education in the area of PR, communications, and mass communications, represents a specific field of activity, where changes occur with extreme frequency, on-line, and predominantly in English.

Modernization, whatever the sphere of human activity might be falling under our consideration, always presumes the existence of elements of innovation, improvement, rationalization, and reflection of the prevailing contemporary requirements and norms. In that sense, it is expected from us that we follow the best of the academic traditions independently of whether for their roots we would be looking into the ancient Greek history [9], in the Magnaura School of Constantinople, in the University of Bologna of 1088 [10], or in the considerably newer history of the American tradition [11], which could be followed by the creation prior to 1781 of some existing until nowadays colleges. At the same time, the universities need to take into consideration the changing environment – in technological, political, economic and social plan, and to offer to their students courses and knowledge that would enable them to ascertain themselves after their graduation. The intensity of changes during the last decades is of such a scale that the president of the American Council on Education (ACE), Eduardo Padron, who in 2009 has been nominated by the “Time Magazine” as one of the top 10 presidents of colleges in the USA [12] stated before a conference in Oslo [13] that practical ways should be sought to train in short terms the students “for professions which even do not exist yet”. In order to clarify the direction of modernization of higher education it is necessary to at least be acquainted with the current picture of higher education at home, to be knowledgeable about the best practices in the world, to be clear about our goals and to possess the answer to the question what education are we in need for?

As regards the system of higher education in our country, it could be maintained that it is of a mixed-type social system, in which one notices an element of social dimension and an element of personal benefit for the individual. In other words, through the public financing of the system the beneficiaries are both the society and the participants in the education process, i.e. the students. It is namely the students that are basically in the focus of the on-going reforms in the education area, yet they are not the sole consumers of higher education. If we revert to the main goals that we could set before ourselves in regard to higher education – satisfying the needs of the work force market, social dimensions covering at that the aspects of academism and the creation of innovations for the economy, then we could define for whom the higher education is intended. In generalizing terms, three basic groups of users could be identified to be shaping the answer to that question – the students, the businesses, and the common social interest through the achievement of the national goals for the development of the state, of the human and the scientific potential.

Having outlined the groups of users of the higher education, we need to proceed with identifying the main participants in the processes. They include, without being limited to, the state, through the national tasks and the national budget; the autonomous higher schools, through their own academic goals and own revenues; the business, through investments in human resources  and in innovations (and contributions to the academic programs); the non-governmental sector, through the attainment of socially significant aims; and the students, through  investing in their own professional future and eventual inclusion in the  academic body of the higher school.

Some of the fundamental goals that the European states are setting before themselves relate to the improvement of the quality of higher education, to increasing the numbers of graduates with the aim of securing cadres with higher qualifications, to improving the management and financing, to higher efficiency through mobility and trans-border cooperation, to materializing the triangle of knowledge: the linking of higher education, scientific research and businesses.

With the permanent attention devoted by the participants in the process to questions related to management, autonomy and financing, the university staff remains without definitive answers as to how their academic endeavors, and the results thereof, should be presented to the students in a way which would at the same time represent added value to the research and would reinforce the students’ relevant knowledge and skills so that they could take up their worthy place on the labour market. One of the basic problems standing out to the attention of the public in our country is linked namely to the above described elements, very often going hand in hand with the issues of stimulation of quality by the means of financial instruments, and transparency of the system, while the interest to the named issues is partially forced upon the public by the data revealed by the recently developed Rating system [14].

Another frequently encountered problem is that in the process of approaching all these issues, one tends to look for guilt for the occurring or not occurring processes, instead of offering solutions and looking for possibilities. And possibilities are at hand’s reach especially as far as exchanges of experiences in the all-world space are concerned,  and in view of the projection that by 2050 the Earth’s population is expected to grow by another 2 billion, while at the same time that of Europe to decrease by 42 million and to be of considerably higher average age [15]. These tendencies show us in a natural way that if we would like to preserve and to develop higher education in our country, we need to adhere to and strive to achieve the world standards, as well as to try to attract young people for studies in our country, instead of losing them. The higher schools could through their autonomy develop such processes and models, which have proven themselves in the countries with longer university history and one of the best instruments in that respect are the programs for mobility. Mobility is linked to one of the basic rights of the European citizens – the right of freedom of movement [16]. Mobility is also considered as equally accessible to students and to academic staff. It is evolving in three main directions – inside the universities, among the universities within the country, and at international level – among universities from different countries.

The internationalization of the universities in the common European Higher Education Area is something different although it is of course connected to mobility. Mobility of students and of professors in different programs is a process that has established its traditions in Europe. Internationalization is, however, on the agenda since rather recently. The European Commission has started to link in a consistent way the seminars of Bologna experts – representatives at the national level of the different EU member states, with the process of increasingly greater integration among themselves of universities in Europe through the internationalization of higher education in Europe. That trend of internationalization renders new and in practical terms unlimited possibilities for transfer, above all of students, but of course also of university lecturers, researchers, and even of administrative personal.

            Along with the greater opportunities, one can observe the immergence of a not very limited number of problems, which require un-delayed and expedient solutions in order not to block the processes of mutually connected activities among the European educational and scientific institutions.

            The process of internationalization of the higher education in Europe includes a number of goals. Of these, three could be defined as being of basic significance:

  1. Mobility of the participants in the process of education from both sides of the tutorial process – students and lecturers, in order to attain transnational education.
  2. Enhancing the attractiveness of higher education from the point of view of employers in Europe – ever stronger inter-linking of education to businesses and the labour market.
  3. Compatibility of European education on the international education market.

The achievement of the goals requires specifying the tasks to be fulfilled. Some of the more important of these are [17]:

    • Attaining adequacy between education in the higher education degrees and the public needs;
    • Compatibility and possible comparison of diplomas, degrees and qualifications;
    • Flexibility of the academic structures, programs, forms of education, individualization of the education trajectories;
    • Creating high academic standards and qualitative higher education;
    • Promoting in society the idea of lifelong education;
    • Forming a serious image of the European higher education, expending its export potential, etc.

One of the doubtless priorities in enabling the internationalization of higher education at this time is the creation, elaboration and expansion, and the translation in the national languages and most of all the implementation of the User’s Guide on the European credits transfer system (ECTS) [18]”.

            When we come to the issue of encompassing European internationalization, due attention needs to be paid to the specific problems connected to the development of the Erasmus Mundus students’ network. Namely, the issue is the recognition and comparability of credits acquired during transfer of students; issuance of common diploma (joint degrees) in cases of studies at two universities; the role of the national experts on the Bologna Process in the materialization of mobility with educational purposes, as well as their support in the creation of the university strategies for internationalization, and in other related activities.

            The good knowledge and the practical application of the User’s Guide on the implementation of the European credits transfer system (ECTS User’s Guide), is of paramount importance to programs for exchange of students („transfer students”) [19]. Such programs are starting to be organized in the Bulgarian schools for high education and it is therefore important that the Bulgarian universities’ credits systems are fully synchronized with these of the other European universities. Hence, such a Guide (translated in Bulgarian) appears to be not only desired, but practically a must. The common European credits system provides the possibility for a free choice and mobility of the students, as well as of the university teachers. On the other hand the common ETCS guarantees closely comparable quality of the education received at various universities in Europe, as well as transparency of the programs, requirements, and the rating of the students.

We would like to make the point that even the most well elaborated ЕСТS User’s Guide could not be applied adequately, if there is no sense of mutual confidence between the colleagues lecturing at different universities.  If there is no confidence, then the transfer of credits becomes an impossible task. This is so because along with the similarities between the programs of the European universities, differences continue to exist. Some of these differences could influence in a substantial way exactly the transfer and the mutual recognition of credits. One example: No definitive answer has yet been found within the EC on the question of equalizing the credits on the basis of one academic year. At present, the credits for one academic year in the various European universities range between 60 and 75 ECTS. This evokes difficulties for the students who are availing of the mobility, and for whom when back home credits have to be transferred from the relevant universities abroad where they have been undergoing their studies for a given period of time.

One more issue of significance and of course connected to the mobility of students and academic staff, is the internationalization of the European universities – at the level of each nation. As compared to the acceptance and adoption of mobility in the European common space of higher education, we may consider that we are still at the starting point in respect to internationalization of the universities in Bulgaria. The first association in this aspect is the fact that there are still leaders at the various levels in the universities, who accept neither the term internationalization, nor its substance. They continue to think that anyone arriving to follow university course in our country should learn the Bulgarian language. That is the way it has been in the past – the foreign students were subjected for almost a whole year to studying the Bulgarian language and were laying their examinations on the language at the Institute for Foreign Students then known as I-Che-Se (in Bulgarian – ИЧС). Even now this approach is possible and is being used in practice.

The idea of internationalization is however somewhat different. It does not contradict the aforesaid example but simply provides added value to it, by containing yet another, innovative idea, which makes easier communication, studies, exchange of cultural values, mobility, and in the final score – the identification of the young persons with Europe. The internationalization of the universities does not “terminate” the national education and culture but simply expands them and provides with better opportunities the young people arriving from different cultures to come in closer encounter with them.

The first and most important step on the road to internationalization will be made when the leadership of the university is convinced that the future of higher education in Europe is connected exactly to the process of the internationalization of each one of the universities. The conviction in the necessity of starting that process highlights the need to lead strategic policy in that direction.

The second matter worth considering includes the understanding that the crux of internationalization is the overcoming of the division of students to national and foreign. Internationalization unites them – they are students of a given concrete European university dependless of what nationality or ethnicity do they belong to. The universities will have no need to sustain a separate office dealing with students from different countries. Each administrator will have the obligation to command working knowledge of one of the more widely used languages in Europe, mainly that or these languages, in which  are offered programs for students at various levels of education in the concrete university, thus materializing the idea of internationalization of hers/his position. i.e. in accordance with hers/his specific professional obligations. In that way, the university administration with a necessary language qualification would be capable of rendering services and managing in an equally excellent way from the same office the university’s home as well as foreign students. In such a way equality among the students is imposed, with them feeling they are studying in a common international environment. Not to be neglected is also the fact that studying in an international environment encourages comparability and supports bringing the quality of the higher education to that offered by various European universities.

Logically, another issue in the sphere of internationalization is that the legal framework in the European countries concerning higher education needs to be compatible so that it could be synchronized in inter-cultural plan. The conclusion that imposes itself is that for the European higher education to become more up-to-date and more attractive, instead of contradicting each other, the experts from the various institutions need to work in a coordinated way. This includes common views and joined efforts among the people from the ministries of education, the academic and the managerial staff of the universities, the latter administration, including the experts in international relations, the students and the experts on higher education without difference where do they work – at national or international level.

Why do internationalization and the transfer of credits respectively turn out to be of such an importance?

One of the serious goals that the European Commission is setting before itself in regard to the European Higher Education Area concerns increasing the segment of the students. While 33 % of the young people from the EU member states at the age between 30 и 34 years were included in higher education in 2008, the idea is that the segment should be at least 40% by 2020. Some European Union member states can even now boost with quite high percentages of the students. Such good examples are provided by Ireland, Luxemburg and Cyprus, as well as by the Scandinavian countries, namely by Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. A number of others such as Belgium, France, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Spain, and the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, are also slightly above the 40 % mark for students of youth age.

On the other hand, there are countries which, as far as this indicator is concerned, are at this moment quite far away from the desired part of the persons between 30 and34 being engaged in obtaining higher education. For example, the data for Romania, Malta, and Italy are below 20%, i.e. below one half of the minimum desired percentage for 2020. Surprising to some extend is also the relatively low part of students at young man’s age, in countries such as Austria, Portugal, Slovakia, and the Check Republic.

Where do we, Bulgarians, stand?

Together with Lithuania and Germany, Bulgaria is “chasing” the 30% bench mark, i.e. we are in the middle of the rating from 2010, which in our view gives us a real chance to achieve the goals that the European Union is setting for the year 2020. It follows from the available data that it would be possible to formulate the Bulgarian national task in regard to the extent of higher education at home, namely – increasing the numbers by ca. 12-13 per cent by 2020.

We would like to turn back to internationalization. For the 27 EU member states the above indicators of the young people who are encompassed by the higher education system is 33.6% in all for 2010. Dependless on where are they studying and what mobile activities are they involved in, students are that elite of the European Union of which it is expected to be the driving engine of the positive transformations in Europe’s future development, hence the serious attention devoted to higher education – at national and at European level.

We permit ourselves at this concluding time to come up with the summary that any new practices in the comparatively conservative educational system might at the start sound as fiction.  The logic of development in the 21st century society however renders non-standard ideas to becoming “born-to-Earth”, permits for them being put in a “step-by-step order” so that even after some possibly longer time they become a reality. Understandably, for the Bulgarian Universities to be modernized and internationalized there is a serious work ahead that needs to be accomplished. For that undertaking to be successful, first of all unconventional leadership and management of the universities’ structures is required. Naturally, what would also be needed is time for the clarification and adoption of the concept and ideas of modernization and internationalization, as well as for their implementation. Further to the hard efforts that are linked to the achievement of internationalization, we would add the delicate approaches which are to be expected from the persons engaging to work in the international environment. A really notable aspect is also the enhanced presence of the electronic universities’ services. And yes, the complete modernization of higher education is unthinkable without its internationalization.

It is however worthwhile facing the challenges and exerting the efforts because the processes of modernization and internationalization are charged with serious benefits. In the final run, it is namely through these processes that university education would transform into transnational education. That in itself represents the valid option for the future citizens of Europe as holders of European education.

References:

[1] Web-site of the Bologna Process.<http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/> (visited on 20 May 2011).

[2] Communique “From Leuven to Budapest and Vienna. The Contribution of the Council of Europe towards the Bologna Process”. September 2009.  <http://www.ehea.info/Uploads/Related%20EU%20activities/Freom%20Leuven%20Louvain-la-Neuve%20to%20Budapest.pdf> (visited on 20 May 2011).

[3] Leuven Ministerial Meeting, 2009. Web-site of the Bologna Process. <http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/conference/> (visited on 20 May 2011).

[4] Web-site of the European Commission, Europe 2020. <http://ec.europa.eu/europe2020/index_bg.htm> (visited on 20 May 2011); also <http://ec.europa.eu/europe2020/index_en.htm#> (visited on 05 June 2012).

[5] The European semester is an annual cycle of co-ordination of the economic and fiscal policies, and includes monitoring of progress. Web-site of the European Commission <http://ec.europa.eu/europe2020/reaching-the-goals/monitoring-progress/index_bg.htm> (visited on 20 May 2011).

[6] Position of Bulgaria in respect to defining the national targets on Strategy “Europe 2020”.

[7] Council of Europe. Web-site of the European Union. <http://www.europe.bg/htmls/page.php?category=52&id=2956> (visited on 20 May 2011).

[8] Altbach, Philip G. and Salmi, Jalil (2011) The Road to Academic Excellence. The Making of World-Class Research Universities. The World Bank. Washington DC, p.р. 5-9 (visited on 20 May 2011).

[9] Dawson, Christopher (1961, 2010) The Crisis of Western Education. The Catholic University of America Press. <http://books.google.bg/books?hl=en&lr=&id=t0LOfd9WKAoC&oi=fnd&pg=PR3&dq=education+history+constantinople+magna+aura+849+&ots=zN_laOVEZh&sig=Gt-iTWQfufZSFZYZVDsAmabsWQw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false> (visited on 17 April 2011).

[10] Ruegg, Walter. (1992, 2003) A History of the University in Europe. Cambridge University Press <http://www.google.bg/books?hl=bg&lr=&id=5Z1VBEbF0HAC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=Bologna+University+History&ots=owc5GZaiw9&sig=Jlezn6hDJ6-BEBIMmwl11w8Kh2k&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Bologna%20University%20History&f=false> (visited on 06 February 2011).

[11] Thelin, John R. (2004, 2011) A History of American Higher Education. The Johns Hopkins University Press. <http://books.google.bg/books?hl=en&lr=&id=PmIx20KR_z0C&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=higher+education+history&ots=bivzii1XpX&sig=SrVcghAJun4X6j5DLosydLclzu8&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=higher%20education%20history&f=false> (visited on 18 April 2011).

[12] Von Drehle, David (2009) The 10 Best College Presidents. Time Magazine, 11 Nov 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1937938_1937934_1937914,00.html> (visited on 20 July 2011).

[13] Padron, Eduardo (2011) Reimaging Democratic Societies: A New Era of Personal and Social Responsibility. University of Oslo, 28 June 2011 <http://www.theewc.org/library/category/view/reimagining.democratic.socities/> (visited on 20 July 2011).

[14] Rating system for high education schools in Bulgaria. http://rsvu.mon.bg/.

[15] Cohen, Joel E. (2002) World Population in 2050: Assessing the Projections. The Federal Reserve, Bank of Boston. <http://www.bos.frb.org/economic/conf/conf46/conf46d1.pdf> (visited on 18 May 2011).

[16] Official Web-site of the European Commission.  <http://ec.europa.eu/bulgaria/citizens/mobility/index_bg.htm (visited on 16 May 2011).

[17] http://www.tuj.asenevtsi.com/EL09/EL04.htm> (Visited on 26 May 2011).

[18] The original is named “ECTS User’s Guide”, Brussels, February, 2009, issued by the European Union.

[19] The User’s Guide can be found in pdf format on the Web-site page for the Centre for Development of Human Resources: <http://hrdc.bg/files/public/Bologna/Rakovodstvo%20na%20potrebitelia%20za%20ECTS.pdf.>

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