The Bologna Process at Twenty: Global Ambitions and EU Foreign Policy

Europe of Knowledge |

Hannah Moscovitz and Hila Zahavi

June 19 will mark the twenty-year anniversary of the Bologna Declaration spearheading the Bologna Process and establishment of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). For the last two decades, the Bologna Process has shaped higher education reforms in Europe and beyond by providing a framework for coordination among national systems. While Europe constitutes the primary sphere of action for the Bologna reforms, it has over the years garnered an important global dimension through the externalisation of its agenda outside Europe. Parallel to these processes, higher education in general has been increasingly internationalised across the globe.


This twenty-year mark thus offers a critical time to reflect on the global impact of the Bologna Process and the role of the EU in this endeavour. The special issue ‘Twenty Years of the Bologna Process- reflecting on its global strategy from the perspective of motivations and external responses’, published in the European Journal of Higher Education, aimed to critically examine the motivations behind the externalisation of the Bologna Process and its impact outside Europe. As a point of departure, the special issue considers the role and interests of the EU in Bologna’s externalisation and specifically, how it can be seen as a tool for advancing EU foreign policy goals.


The Externalisation of the Bologna Process- Bologna’s Global Strategy

The importance of prescribing an international dimension to the Bologna reforms has been on the agenda of stakeholders since the signing of the 1999 Declaration. At this time, the idea that the EHEA should aim to offer a model of attraction beyond Europe was highlighted (Zgaga, 2006). As the process evolved, the notion of ‘international attractiveness’ took on a more central position in its agenda-making.


During the 2005 Bologna Ministerial Conference in Bergen, the decision to include an ‘external dimension’ (now referred to as the Global Strategy) to the reforms was announced: ‘The European Higher Education Area must be open and should be attractive to other parts of the world’. Since Bergen, various initiatives have been pursued aiming to strengthen Bologna’s international appeal, including the Bologna Policy Forum established in 2009 to support higher education policy dialogue with stakeholders outside the Bologna Process framework. Through the international promotion of the Bologna Process, European higher education is presented as a model for reform. What is the role of the EU in this promotional endeavour? What drives EU interests behind Bologna’s Global Strategy?


The EU’s underlying motivations behind Bologna’s externalisation

A discussion of the EU’s interests in Bologna’s global strategy necessitates an understanding of its role in the Bologna Process as a whole. While the Bologna Process was developed outside the confines of the EU’s institutional structure as an inter-governmental initiative (Ravinet, 2008), it has through the European Commission in particular, taken on a de-facto leadership role in the reforms (Keeling, 2006). The EU’s underlying motivations towards the Bologna Process are based on economic, cultural as well as geopolitical interests. The global orientation of the reforms lends weight to all three areas, with a particular emphasis on the former.


Through Bologna’s ‘global strategy’, the EU aims to become an international player in global higher education ultimately increasing its global reach through this realm. Following this, the idea that the Bologna Process can be understood as an ‘international higher education regime’ is discussed in the special issue (Asderaki, 2019; Zahavi and Friedman, 2019). As the EHEA and its reforms become the focus of increased attraction around the world, as its unofficial leader, the EU cultivates a hegemonic position in the global higher education landscape.


The EU’s motivation to take on a leading role in global higher education is reflected in its wider foreign policy agenda. Higher education features as a significant area of the EU’s foreign policy activities pursued by the European External Action Service (EEAS).  A search of the term ‘higher education’ in the EEAS website bring up countless examples of initiatives linking higher education with the EU’s diplomatic agenda. Around the world, the EU’s diplomatic missions promote the EHEA and its initiatives through events, education fairs, information days and more.


The EU’s higher education foreign policy initiatives can be seen as overlapping with Bologna’s global strategy. The European Commission’s vested interest in Bologna’s global strategy is evidenced in its engagement in Bologna Policy Forums (BPF). Since its launch in 2009, forums have included an opening statement by a Commission representative relating to the importance of such an initiative for the EU. During the BPF’s first meeting in 2009, the EU Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth stated:


‘the Global Dimension of the Bologna Process has always mattered a great deal to the European Commission. From the start, we’ve tried to show that international relations are one of the ingredients of the European Higher Education Area and that our efforts would gain strength if we keep constructive interactions with higher–education systems and institutions in other parts of the world’ (Bologna Policy Forum, 2009).


Hence, for the European Commission, higher education is considered a valuable resource for international relations and vice versa. The Bologna Process offers the Commission a useful gateway to pursue its foreign affairs and extend its global reach in the field of higher education.


Examining Bologna’s foreign policy motivations and its ‘effectiveness’

The EEAS aims to ‘make EU foreign policy more coherent and effective’ and to ‘increase the EU’s global influence’ (EEAS website), while Bologna’s global strategy works towards enhancing the ‘attractiveness’ and ‘visibility’ of European higher education across the globe. The propagation of the Bologna model outside the confines of the EHEA could thus be seen as a contributing to the EU’s own global aspirations. For the last twenty years, the Bologna Process has been viewed by its policy-makers, including the European Commission, as valuable for showcasing Europe and the EU on an international level. Via its presentation and potential application in other parts of the world, the Bologna Process provides a ‘European’ model for higher education reform. Through this externalisation, Europe and by extension the EU, gain notoriety in the global higher education landscape, heightening its competitive edge in this sphere.


Studies on the global strategy of the Bologna Process, including those presented in this special issue, have examined its impact on higher education systems outside Europe as an example of its international influence. Exploring the influence of the Bologna reforms in Canada, New Zealand, Israel, and in the Asian and African context, the articles included in this special issue lend weight to the empirical analysis of the global impact of European higher education. The inclusion of a broad scope of countries each characterised by distinct historical, political and cultural contexts, and with varying relations with the EU is of particular value.


Moreover, examining the reactions to the Bologna reforms in these contexts in conjunction with a study of the interests behind its global strategy is important. By bridging the understanding of the EU’s motivations – and the actual responses to the Bologna Process internationally, the special issue delves into how the stated objectives of the Bologna Process (and the EU) correlate with the manner in which it is perceived, discussed and potentially implemented around the world. In other words, how do the EU’s motivations correlate with the actual ‘effects’ of the global strategy? Such an initiative leads to a questioning of what exactly constitutes ‘effectiveness’ in Bologna’s externalisation agenda?


As the examples in this special issue indicate, the actual ‘impact’- as in policy change -of the Bologna Process on the higher education systems examined is relatively limited. Yet, in all cases a certain degree of normative influence is observed, through which national systems outside Europe emulate in one way or another the European example in higher education reform. As Bologna’s global ambitions continue, future research could undoubtedly benefit from further exploring the motivations/effects dynamic. This would also have important policy implications for decision-making around the EHEA and for EU foreign policy from a broader perspective.



The research for the special issue ‘Twenty Years of the Bologna Process-reflecting on its global strategy from the perspective of motivations and external responses’ was conducted as part of the European Union funded Jean Monnet Network- Near-EU. Near-EU is a global academic network aiming to broaden the field of European integration studies by incorporating the domain of higher education in the research and activities of European study centres and departments of international affairs.


Hannah Moscovitz is Researcher and Head of International Projects at the Simone Veil Research Centre for Contemporary European Studies- Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel). As part of her work, Hannah is involved in managing the European Commission funded Near-EU Jean Monnet Network. Hannah’s PhD research- completed in September 2018 in the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University-dealt with the territorial and identity politics of higher education and research policy in subnational regions.


Hila Zahavi is Director of the Simone Veil Research Centre for Contemporary European Studies- Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel). As part of her work, Hila is involved in managing the European Commission funded Near-EU Jean Monnet Network. Her PhD research- completed in August 2018- dealt with higher education as a foreign policy tool.



Asderaki, F. (2019). Researching the European Higher Education Area external effectiveness: regime complexity and interplay. European Journal of Higher Education9(1), 40-57.

Bologna Policy Forum. (2009). “Louvain-la-Neuve, Opening Statement by the European Commission.” April 29. 2018.

Keeling, R. (2006). “The Bologna Process and the Lisbon Research Agenda: The European Commission’s Expanding Role in Higher Education Discourse.” European Journal of Education 41 (2): 203–223

Ravinet, P. (2008). “From Voluntary Participation to Monitored Coordination: Why European Countries Feel Increasingly Bound by Their Commitment to the Bologna Process.” European Journal of Education 43 (3): 353–367.

Zahavi, H., & Friedman, Y. (2019). The Bologna Process: an international higher education regime. European Journal of Higher Education9(1), 23-39.

Zgaga, P. (2006). Looking out: The Bologna Process in a global setting. On the ‘External Dimension’ of the Bologna Process. Oslo: Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.