Agència per a la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari de Catalunya

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Bologna process

In June 1999, the Education Ministers from twenty-nine European countries signed a declaration in Bologna that stated the need to develop a process of convergence in higher education before 2010 in order to give consistency to the different existing systems and to facilitate the free circulation of people promoted by the countries of the European Union.

The objective in setting up the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was not to introduce a standardised or "uniformised" system throughout the continent, but rather a series of flexible and transparent mechanisms that enable citizens to freely gain access to modes of supply of higher education and the labour market in Europe. The aim was to strike a balance between the advantages of diversity and any resulting restrictions or incompatibilities; in other words, to progress towards a "new paradigm based on different systems aimed at common objectives".

In order to achieve these joint objectives, the Bologna Declaration recommended a series of action:

  • In order to achieve these common objectives, the Bologna Declaration recommended six actions:
  • The promotion of mobility for students, teachers, researchers and administrative and technical staff), together with removal of the remaining obstacles to free movement
  • The promotion of European cooperation in quality assurance and the development of comparable criteria and methods.
  • The adoption of a system whereby academic degrees are easy to recognise and compare, including the introduction of a shared diploma supplement to promote access to the labour market (employability) and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system.
  • The adoption of a system based essentially on two cycles, undergraduate and postgraduate: a first cycle of academic value that is geared to the labour market lasting at least three years and, conditional on the completion of the first cycle, a second cycle leading to the Master and/or Doctorate degree lasting a maximum of two years, as in many European countries.
  • The establishment of a system of accumulation and transfer of credits of the ECTS type used in existing European mobility programmes.
  • The promotion of an essential European dimension in higher education, with the emphasis on curriculum development, institutional cooperation, mobility plans and integrated study programmes, training and research.

This process of harmonisation (but not homogenisation) of the common area has had an over-riding impact on the structure and concept of higher education in all of the countries involved. If the abovementioned objectives are to be achieved, it is essential for studies to become transparent to ensure mutual recognition and the free circulation of students; flexible i.e. structured around modules that provide a versatile and broad-based education, with different points of access and exit; an education adapted, in short, to a broad spectrum of students with a wide diversity of expectations and circumstances; and prestigious i.e. based on transnational standards of quality and targeting students from different countries.  

Reference documents

European Ministers of Higher Education (1999). Bologna Declaration.

AQU Catalunya (2003). General framework for European integration. Barcelona: AQU Catalunya.

European Commission (2009). The Bologna Process - Towards the European Higher Education Area.

Council of Europe. Bologna for Pedestrians.

Benelux Bologna Secretariat. Bologna process.

ECTS credits

The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) is the unit of measurement common to all university degrees that conform to EHEA guidelines and is based on the workload required for a student to achieve the objectives of a programme of study. It has been developed as a student-centred credit transfer and accumulation system:

  • As a credit transfer system, its aim is to allow for greater student mobility by facilitating the academic recognition of a student's studies (learning experiences) between different institutions.
  • As a credit accumulation system, its objectives are to facilitate the transparency and comparability of study programmes and qualifications and to facilitate the mutual recognition of qualifications.

It is generally accepted that one ECTS credit is generally equivalent to a total of between 25 and 30 work hours by the student. This includes master classes, together with all of the other activities in which a student acquires competences, skills and content. The ECTS therefore signifies a far-reaching reform of European higher education systems, which aims at changing instructional design, increasing the degree of mobility between higher education institutions and giving students access to the European labour market.  

Reference documents

European Commission (2009). ECTS Users'Guide. Luxemburg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

European Commission (2007). Main Characteristics of ECTS.

Spanish Ministry of Education and Science (MEC) (2003). Royal Decree 1125/2003, 5 September, whereby the European Credit Transfer System was given official recognition and validity throughout Spain.

Degree structures

The structure of university degrees proposed by the Bologna Declaration is fundamentally based on three principles:

  1. the establishment of a three-cycle qualifications system,
  2. a more flexible Bachelor/Master structure, and
  3. a reduction in the amount of study time for students to obtain a first cycle degree.
  • First-cycle studies leading to the award of a Bachelor's degree qualification shall be relevant to the European labour market as an appropriate level of qualification. This first degree is normally awarded after successful completion of a minimum of three years study (180 ECTS credits) and no more than four (240 ECTS credits).
  • Second cycle, or postgraduate, degrees are usually the stage of specialisation in a specific field of knowledge and generally have a duration of a minimum of one year (60 ECTS credits) and a maximum of two (120 ECTS credits).
  • Doctoral level, or third cycle, degrees are awarded after approximately three years specialisation in a field of knowledge with objectives that are clearly research-based  

Reference documents for Spain:

Royal Decree 861/2010, 2 July, which amended Royal Decree 1393/2007, 29 October, concerning the structuring of recognised university studies and qualifications.

Royal Decree 1393/2007, 29 October, concerning the structuring of recognised university studies and qualifications. This legislation (enacted by the executive branch of the government) established the new system of degrees based on two levels —undergraduate and postgraduate — and three cycles, and also regulates first cycle courses leading to a recognised Bachelor's qualification.

Quality assurance

The main purpose of a European dimension to quality assurance is to promote mutual trust and improve transparency while respecting the diversity of national contexts and subject areas. The principles of diversity and institutional autonomy and the rights of economically active persons to free movement within the European Union all increase the need for the use of quality assurance evaluation and accreditation mechanisms for different European university studies.

The most tangible result of the entire process of European convergence, in terms of quality assurance, was the drafting of the Standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the EHEA, the document that sets out the European standards for the internal and external assurance of quality for higher education institutions and external quality assurance agencies. As mentioned above, these standards were adopted in 2005 by the European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in the Bergen Declaration. They are included in all review methodologies used by AQU Catalunya.

PDF PDF Summary of the standards applicable to any internal evaluation

PDF PDF Summary of the standards applicable to any external evaluation

PDF PDF Summary of the standards applicable to external quality assurance agencies

The European diploma supplement

The European Diploma Supplement (DS) is a document enclosed in an official diploma certifying the award of a degree/qualification, the purpose of which is to improve the international transparency and fair academic and professional recognition of qualifications. Its fundamental purpose is to provide a description of the nature, level, context, content and status of studies pursued and successfully completed by the student.

Reference documents

European Commission (2009). The Diploma Supplement.

Royal Decree 1044/2003, 1 August, whereby the procedure for universities in Spain to issue the European Diploma Supplement was established.

The qualifications framework

A qualifications framework is a structure that allows an individual to be classified according to acquired learning outcomes through the use of descriptors. With the Bergen Communiqué (2005), the European Ministers adopted the Framework for Qualitucations of the EHEA, and confirmed their commitment to developing the complementarity of qualifications frameworks compatible with the broader framework in Europe in each of the participating countries before the end of 2010. In 2008, the European Parliament also recommended the establishment of the European Qualifications Framework, which affects all levels of education, including higher education.

The Spanish Qualifications Framework for Higher Education (MECES) is currently being developed. Qualifications frameworks are important instruments in achieving comparability and transparency within the EHEA and facilitating the movement of learners within, as well as between, higher education systems. They should also help HEIs to develop modules and study programmes based on learning outcomes and credits, and improve the recognition of qualifications as well as all forms of prior learning.

A new paradigm in education

In addition to the adoption of ECTS as a unit of measurement for new degrees, a new approach was introduced which places the focus of the learning process on the students (student-centred learning). This is a variation in relation to the previous paradigm, which focused on input by the teacher, and has many implications for a whole series of factors that are closely connected: more specific learning outcomes, enhancement of the competences and skills to be acquired by students, the pre-eminence of outputs over inputs, the emphasis on employability, the changing role of teachers and, lastly, the adoption new educational approaches to teaching.

Programme curricula need to assure not just the cognitive mastery of disciplines, but also the enhancement of other aspects of learning, such as the acquisition of basic competences, both those specific to each discipline and generic ones (common to any degree programme) as well. Courses of study need to clearly state what is expected of students, and they therefore need to be based more on outputs than inputs.

It also changes and reorients the traditional role of the teacher, which was to structure and transmit knowledge, in a direction that is more sensitive to the development and needs of the students. Moreover, the assessment of learning outcomes, which needs to include all associated aspects and also give students more control over their progress, has become a key element in the educational process.