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Tuning Higher Education In The USA

Tuning Higher Education In The USA
With the US appealing to less and less international students, perhaps institutions need to consider aligning with one another. Photo by Adam Yoblon

Since 2003 there have been only a handful of articles in public media about Tuning or the Bologna Process. This is surprising considering these articles suggest that the Bologna Process is revolutionizing higher education and making Europe more competitive in the global knowledge economy. Additionally, in parallel to the Bologna-led changes to European education systems, there have been reports throughout the past decade that international student applications in the U.S. have declined.  In 2004 Academe reported 90% of American graduate schools experienced a decline in applications from international students. A review of OECD data from 2006-2009 on international students in higher education indicates while there has been an increase in actual numbers of international students the U.S. market share has decreased, from 39% in 2006 to 32.6% in 2009. But what does this have to do with Bologna?

First, it is important to understand what the Bologna Process is. The Bologna Process is a series of declarations and communiqués currently approved by the education ministers of 47 European countries and named after the Italian city Bologna, where 29 education ministers signed the declaration in 1999. The six core objectives have remained with only minor adjustments:

  1. To establish a system of degree comparison;
  2. To establish a two-cycle (undergraduate-graduate system) – this has been altered to a 3-cycle, bachelor, master and doctorate system;
  3. Establish a credit system (ECTS);
  4. Promote mobility for students, staff and faculty;
  5. Promote systems of quality assurance;
  6. Promote other European dimensions in HE, such as curriculum development and inter-institutional cooperation.

These might seem like unattainable goals for such a large area marked by different languages, cultures, and education systems.  How can degrees from across Europe be compared? How can credits be compared? This is where Tuning comes in. In 2000, Tuning was developed as an approach to address the objectives of the Bologna Process.

Tuning’s motto is “Tuning of educational structures and programmes on the basis of diversity and autonomy.” This is done on a subject-by-subject basis within the framework of 5 key areas: general/generic competencies, subject-specific competencies, credit transfer and accumulation system, learning, teaching and assessment approaches, and quality assurance. The most important aspect of this shift is from what needs to be taught, to what needs to be learned.

For a program that has revolutionized higher education in Europe, has seen great headway in Latin America, has been taken up by Australia and adopted by a number of countries in Africa there has been a conspicuous lack of public reporting on Tuning and Bologna in the U.S.. Yet, it exists. The Lumina Foundation supports Tuning USA, which has been taken up by four states in faculty-led initiatives. The three original pilot projects began in Indiana, Minnesota and Utah in 2009. Texas signed on in 2010.

The final reports from the three original states and an interim report from Texas proved a clear indication of how the process was received.  Indiana was responsible for pilot programs in Chemistry, Education and History. Although Indiana suggested that they wouldn’t continue Tuning, they did indicate a future focus on competencies needed by graduates and credit transferability would be important going forward.  Minnesota piloted Tuning in Biology and Graphic Arts. Their final report suggested more research was needed in the area of competencies and agreement about required competencies between stakeholders. History and Physics were piloted by Utah. Their final report in 2010 recommended expanding Tuning not only to other disciplines but up to the PhD level as well. Texas piloted Electrical, Mechanical, Civil and Industrial Engineering.  In their interim report Texas indicates there are two main goals; to be able to fund institutions based on outcomes and to Tune or align learning objectives on a state wide basis. This application would have the most direct impact on higher education institutions.

While the results of these reports are varied the general consensus appears to be that student competencies (outcomes) and credit transferability are key issues that need to be addressed by higher education institutions in the U.S. In his 2008 brief Learning Accountability from Bologna: A Higher Education Policy Primer for the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP), Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at IHEP concludes that we should acknowledge the success of Tuning in Europe and initiate a systemic reform in U.S. higher education systems. Mr. Adelman goes on to recommend becoming a part of the “emerging paradigm in which the smart money is on cooperation and conversation.”

Whether or not institutions take these issues up as part of Tuning or their own initiative it is a much needed step in the right direction. Evidence is clear that the U.S. is appealing to fewer international students. The market-share of these students has been growing rapidly in Europe as students can increasingly be assured of degree recognition, transferability of credits and oftentimes, courses offered in English. To compete in the global knowledge economy the U.S. must strive to meet the demands of students world-wide, otherwise it risks being left outside the higher education market.

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