Module 6.Studying in the European Higher Education Area.

Part 1: The instititutiona settings.

4. The implementation of the Bologna Process.

Higher education systems across Europe were traditionally characterized by a relevant degree of diversity, both in their structural features and in the curricular structures and training offer.
A typology could be useful to detect and depict the main differences that characterized and, to some extent, are still been considered typical of European higher education systems.

  1. Binary model: this is still the most widespread model; it is based on a clear and formalized distinction between university institutions and vocational/professional higher education centres. The former provide academic and mainly theoretical/generalist formation, while the latter provide training in the most applied knowledge disciplines (e.g.: Engineering, Nursing, Teaching, etc.). This model characterizes Germanic countries (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden). Until 1992 the British system was also a binary one.


  1. Pluralistic-mixed model: the model is represented by one single nation, namely France. This model is characterized by university institutions which provide academic training inside university institutions or outside them; however they cooperate closely. There are some technical and vocational tertiary education institutions providing applied and professional training, as in the binary model. Then, together with universities and formally detached from them, we can find the Grandes Écoles system which might be viewed as an elite sector of higher education to be found in the Administration, Business and Engineering fields. Student recruitment is based here on highly selective mechanisms.
  1. Unified model: this model is the result of the merging of professional/vocational training and the academic/generalist training model; then, both types of education are provided by the same institution, universities in general. This merging has translated in the integration of vocational training courses in university education, even when these were mainly available at other post-secondary institutions, and the conversion of vocational higher education institutions into universities. Spain is the most relevant example within this system and also, Great Britain, from 1992 on.


  1. University-dominated model: this definition highlights the fact that the higher education system is organized almost exclusively on university institutions which provide academic/generalist training with a strong emphasis on theoretical knowledge. Italy epitomizes this institutional model.

Hence, the European higher education landscape is quite heterogeneous both in terms of institutions’ organization, institutions’ type and their academic offer.

The Bologna Process is producing some convergence at a system level as well as at the institutional/formative one (namely: vocational institutions/study courses incorporate some features of academic ones, while university/academic course are incorporating some vocational traits and courses), triggered by a new common curricular structure (the Bachelor/Master/Doctorate scheme) and other arrangements. Despite the former advances, it is not yet possible to talk about a European higher education system. Europe still displays a significant degree of heterogeneity and this is also reflected in the implementation of Bologna arrangements. The following figures (from 2 to 4) show the differential degrees in the implementation of some relevant Bologna objectives by the signatories to the Declaration.



Fig. 2: Level of implementation of a three-cycle structure compliant with the Bologna Process, 2006/07. Source: Eurydice, Focus on the Structure of Higher Education in Europe 2006-2007


Fig.3 : Fields of study organised in the three-cycle structure or solely as a single cycle, 2006/07. Source: Eurydice, Focus on the Structure of Higher Education in Europe 2006-2007


Fig. 4: Study fields offered solely as long studies (exceptions to the implementation of the three-cycle structure), 2006/07. Source: Eurydice, Focus on the Structure of Higher Education in Europe 2006-2007

There is evidence that that following studies in one country, but also in a given institution (Grande École/university/technical institution; mainly academic or vocational or a mix of both) and study course, may translate in distinct experiences as perceived by participant students. Each national system and institution enjoys certain specific features, they are also immersed in a given university or higher education tradition, their internal management and languages of instruction may affect students’ learning experiences.

Another heterogeneity factor that is worth mentioning is the language of instruction. Europe has different languages and as a general room, the national language is the once used in the university classrooms. If we focus on the main Western European countries, some linguistic divergences can be found:

  1. English speaking: UK, Malta
  2. German speaking: Germany, Austria, Swiss German Canton, Eastern Belgium (close to the German border)
  3. French speaking: France, Swiss French Canton, Belgium (Walloon Southern region)
  4. Dutch speaking: Netherlands, Belgium (Flanders Northern region)
  5. Spanish speaking: Spain
  6. Italian speaking: Italy, Swiss Italian Canton
  7. Portuguese speaking: Portugal
  8. Greek speaking: Greece, Cyprus Greek part
  9. Nordic languages: in the Scandinavian area, every country has its own language.

Obviously we can go on with such a list considering the Eastern Europe countries, Turkey, Russia and the other countries that joined the EHEA in the last few years, each having its own linguistic features.

In some Western European countries, some institutions has decided to provide study courses in English, considered to be the new Esperanto, that is the new common language not only in Europe but beyond the European scope, and this in order to overcome linguistic differences in the light of the Bologna Process and students’ mobility. This is especially the case in German and Dutch speaking countries, in Scandinavian countries and also in France. As a result, at present a student can attend lessons and subjects taught in English, together with the traditional national courses taught in the national official language, but also there are study courses wholly taught in English. In other countries these courses are not always the rule (e.g. Italy).

Massimiliano Vaira
Universitá de Pavia (Italy)

Access the EU network: Eurydice:
What is it? Which information is available?
Then access the glossary (on T&L). Which ideas come to your mind?
Try to select some examples of various traditions, higher education systems, institutions, university practices, etc. into the European Higher Education Area.


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