Digitalisation as powerful means for the Bologna Process in European higher education to meet its goals


 The Bologna Process set out to establish a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) based on common objectives, standards and commitments. 20 years after its launch, the 48 signatory states continue to implement reforms with the objective of making European higher education systems more inclusive, more competitive and to promote international mobility of students and staff. The Ministers responsible for higher education in the EHEA will be meeting on 24-25 May in Paris to discuss their programme of work until 2020. A major part of discussions will be how digitalisation can help to achieve the Bologna objectives.


The most recent wave of the EUROSTUDENT study published in March 2018 has again shown European higher education to be better at recruiting students from well-educated families (Hauschildt, Vögtle, & Gwosć, 2018). But the study also highlights that first-generation students (i.e. those whose parents have not graduated from higher education themselves) tend to enter higher education later, study in short programmes at universities of applied science and rely on paid employment. The same study also shows that this group of students tend to have less clear study intentions and more often doubt their choice of study programme.


The problem of inclusion is discussed within the context of the Bologna Process as the ‘social dimension’. It is about raising aspirations of potential students, facilitating second chance routes into higher education and providing specific support to students to assure student success. This involves, in particular, finding effective forms of information, advice and guidance for learners and offering special bridging courses to take account of diverse educational routes into higher education (Orr, Usher, Haj, Atherton, & Geanta, 2017).


The European project entitled ‘Peer Learning for the Social Dimension’ from 2015 found many examples of counselling and support offered to students [1]. Two of the key problems of this type of support are that: 1) it is difficult to reach those learners who need the support most, and 2) it is difficult to scale-up support in the context of limited resources. Digital initiatives can help overcome these constraints. New forms of communication through social media networks is one such avenue for improvement.


A study from the USA on helping first generation students fit in at university or college concludes that: “Social media can be part of the solution to the challenge of connecting older students to their two-year institutions. It can be both an engagement tool and a research tool.” (Brenden, Deil-Amen, & Rios-Aguilar, 2015). A study from Bristol, reflecting use of social media for this purpose in the United Kingdom, had similar findings (Timmis, Yee, & Chereau, 2015). This approach is being taken further by the European STELA project (Successful Transition from secondary to higher Education by means of Learning Analytics), which aims to facilitate successful transition from secondary to higher education using the technique of learning analytics to support the decision-making process of prospective students during this transitional period [2]. 


Another pathway to opening up higher education is to use new forms of recognition of prior learning. This can be done through universities or consortiums offering online learning in the form of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to new learner groups on the condition that learning through the MOOC will be recognised for entry and progression by higher education institutions (e.g. through awarded credit points). This is something the educational platform Kiron Open Higher Education has been working on for refugees on a large scale [3]. Another example of work on the recognition of MOOC-based learning is the MOONLITE project (Moocs for Social Inclusion – comparing institutionaml MOOC strategies) coordinated by the Spanish National Distance Education University (UNED) [4]. A recent study published by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU), as part of the MOONLITE project, demonstrates that a large majority of institutions participating in the survey (70%) believes that credits from MOOCs should be recognized in the formal study programmes of the MOOC provider as well as other higher education institutions (Jansen & Konings, 2017).


These European examples highlight how digitalisation is being harnessed to make higher education in the region more inclusive. They show that digitalisation should be viewed as a powerful means to meet existing challenges in higher education. To this aim, an author collective has taken the initiative to shape the debate in the Bologna Process and published a more detailed position paper with recommendations on harnessing the power of digitalisation. The paper was drafted by the authors of this article and has been supported by the Bertelsmann Foundation, Kiron Open Higher Education, the German Higher Education Forum for Digitalisation (HFD), the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU), the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN) and FiBS Research Institute for the Economics of Education and Social Affairs. It is expected that many of the ideas expressed in the position paper will be discussed in the next phase of the Bologna Process running 2018 until 2020.


The position paper can be downloaded online and discussed on twitter under the hashtag #BolognaDigital.

Dr. Dominic Orr, Senior Researcher at FiBS Research Institute for Economics of Education and Social Affairs, Berlin [corresponding author]

Peter van der Hijden, Independent European Higher Education Expert, Brussels -

Florian Rampelt, Director of Education, Kiron Open Higher Education, Berlin -

Ronny Röwert , Head of German Academic Relations, Kiron Open Higher Education, Berlin -

Dr. Renata Suter, Head of Research, Kiron Open Higher Education, Berlin -


Brenden, S., Deil-Amen, R., & Rios-Aguilar, C. (2015). “Anyone like me ?” - Identity and social media among nontraditional-age community college students. Retrieved from

Hauschildt, K., Vögtle, E. M., & Gwosć, C. (2018). Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe. W. Bertelsmann.

Jansen, D., & Konings, L. (2017). MOOC Strategies of European Institutions. EADTU. Retrieved from

Orr, D., Usher, A., Haj, C., Atherton, G., & Geanta, I. (2017). Study on the impact of admission systems on higher education outcomes Volume I : Comparative report (Vol. I). Publications Office of the European Union.

Timmis, S., Yee, W. C., & Chereau, B. M. (2015). Widening participation in the digital age : can online networks and technologies support under- represented students in succeeding at university ? (Policy Briefing No. 16). Retrieved from 16_widening participation in the digital age.pdf



[1] See info sheet here: [2] See project website here: [3] See information on the work of this NGO here:

[4] See information on the work of the MOONLITE consortium here:

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