Romania: Poor Marks for Bologna

CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | A week before being scheduled to defend her thesis and earn her bachelor’s degree in French and Hebrew, Anda Stefanescu has other more pressing things to worry about. She has to take several exams covering different subjects from her previous university years, which she had either failed or skipped altogether.

Her case is hardly unusual in Romanian universities this summer, when the first generation of students under the Bologna system graduates. Thousands are rushing to complete exams left hanging for several semesters. According to the new system adopted here three years ago, students are in theory required to earn 60 credits per year, but in practice they can move from one year to the next with only half as many credits.

University of Babes Bolyai

University of Babes Bolyai

“Most of my classmates just cannot handle the amount of subject matter that is being taught and simply break down. They give up trying to be up-to-date with all their exams at all times,” Stefanescu says.

Stefanescu argues that by dropping one school year at the bachelor’s level, the Bologna system did not, in fact, reform university education in Romania, but only rearranged it. “My feeling is that we have to cover just as much as the previous classes of students, but in a considerably shorter time,” she complains.

Before the changes, a bachelor’s degree required at least four years of schooling but now the degree is conferred after three years.

Stefanescu admits that the burden would be lighter if students actually devoted all their time to studying. As attendance at lectures is not mandatory, the overwhelming majority of full-time students also have part-time or full-time jobs. Stefanescu is a TV news host and says that 80 percent of her classmates have held jobs for at least two years.

Then there are those like Adrian Bilc who find time for even more: he works and on top of that is a second-year student at two different schools at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania’s largest. The business school is the choice of his parents, and Bilc has chosen to attend the school of economics as well. He says he is swamped with work but that he can handle it all. His only regret: that he is studying under the Bologna system.

“Lots of important subjects got cut out or crammed into one semester instead of one year or more. I find that I will be leaving school with huge gaps compared to the students ahead of us,” Bilc says.

Romania is one of 46 countries that have signed onto the Bologna Process, a 1999 accord creating common standards for higher-education systems throughout Europe. The standards are intended to modernize curriculums and education with an emphasis on interactive teaching and instructor involvement with students. The accord establishes a system of credits to make it easier for students to study in different countries and be credited for work outside their home universities.

Educators and students in many countries, particularly former communist nations like Romania, say they were forced to adopt the changes even though their system were ill prepared. Students complain that teachers have been slow to abandon older methods, like long lectures and lessons based on rote memorization. Professors, meanwhile complain they lack the resources and support to provide a more practical learning experience for students.

Advantages of Bologna

But supporters of the system say time and experience will erase the problems, and giving students and instructors the opportunity to expand their horizons is worth the temporary drawbacks.

“The Bologna Process is a fine example of European cooperation, both within and outside the EU framework,” says a European Parliament report released this spring. “Mobility … provides an experience of invaluable richness in terms of academic, cultural and social diversity. Finally, it eases networking and cooperation between higher education institutions, which is absolutely necessary for a qualitative development of the European higher education and research establishment.”

But like their students, Romanian professors are also not particularly enthusiastic about Bologna. Some express frustration that they had to cut out significant portions of the syllabus in order to meet compressed academic schedules, while others complain that flexible exam schedules mean they never really know who is going to show up and for what course.

“This is not a situation an academic should have to face,” says English lecturer Mircea Craciun. He also asserted that such circumstances make it very difficult for professors to closely monitor students’ progress.

A 2005 report prepared by the Department of Public Administration at Babes Bolyai says that while Bologna has led to curriculum improvements, workloads for instructors have increased, especially at branch campuses.

Critics believe that the Bologna system is only the latest of many changes that seriously compromise the quality of Romanian education. With a student population of about 800,000 – more than four times bigger than 20 years ago – the country gradually moved away from a more rigid selection process toward a system of mass education. Many universities have scrapped entrance and/or graduation exams, both of which were previously considered the only fair methods of discerning qualified candidates. The saying goes that only those who do not want a university degree in Romania will be left out.

There is also concern about the shorter duration of undergraduate studies under the Bologna scheme. “These students now finish only half-educated,” says Virgil Stanciu, a former head of the English department at Babes-Bolyai’s School of Languages. He recalled when a normal course of study here was as long as five years. Subsequently dropped to four years, it now stands at three, but the students have the chance to follow up with a four-semester master’s program at their own school or in a different field.

“It is just not true to assume that we have an advantage by finishing our education sooner,” says Marius Precup, who is about to graduate from the School of Business. “Enrolling in a master’s program is no longer just a choice but a virtual obligation for everyone who finishes university after three years. Otherwise our diplomas are not worth much.”

One positive of the Bologna system for Precup was the freedom to take classes in different schools and have the credits easily transferred. He took Japanese and psychology because he wanted to try something different and because he didn’t think the optional classes at his own school were that interesting.

He is, however, one of a limited number of Romanian undergrads who have taken advantage of the mobility provided by the new system. While hailed as one of the most important assets of the Bologna system, student mobility and credit transfer are still very abstract notions for the vast majority of students here.

“If you ask someone what credits are they will most likely tell you that they are some units that cost eight euros each and that you need several of them in order to pass an exam,” says Bogdan Cardos, the vice president of the National Alliance of Student Organizations in Romania, the largest of its kind in the country.

According to Cardos, the only real mobility Romanian students have is through international exchange programs such as Erasmus.

“Internal mobility is virtually nonexistent,” says Cardos, giving several reasons for this situation: poorly informed students and huge egos of many professors, who refuse to accept that their students could get the required credits by taking classes other than the ones they teach. Money also comes into play: as departments receive financial support according to the number of students they have enrolled, it is highly unlikely that they will be happy to let them move around and risk losing revenue.

On the bright side, Cardos says full transfers between universities can be now done in a much less complicated way than a few years ago.


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