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Degree Structures

Bologna Process Initiatives

One of the key action lines set out by the 1999 Bologna Declaration was the adoption of a system based on two cycles, a cycle being one of the sequential levels within which higher education qualifications are located. The two cycles identified were

  • the undergraduate Bachelor's level, lasting a minimum of three years and needing to be completed in order to access the second cycle;
  • the graduate Master's level.

It was further decided that the degree awarded after the first cycle would be recognised as a qualification in the European labour market, while the second cycle would be awarded with a master and/or doctorate degree, as had already been the case in several European countries. This marked a fundamental change insofar as prior to 1999, the majority of higher education programmes across Europe were not organised according to a three-cycle-structure.

The Ministerial Summit in Berlin (2003) was the first time a third cycle of higher education - beyond the initial two - was considered, and with that came talk of closer integration between the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the European Research Area (ERA). Following the Berlin Ministerial Summit, a further action line in was accordingly added: Doctoral studies and the synergy between the EHEA and the ERA

The Bergen Communiqué (2005) then implemented these considerations in the form of an overarching European qualifications framework of the EHEA which featured the now common generic framework with three cycles:

First cycle:

  • At least three full-time equivalent academic years, typically carrying 180 to 240 ECTS credit points
  • generally referred to as the Bachelor cycle, although it also includes 'short' programmes such as the Foundation Degree, and 'intermediate' programmes such as the DipHE and the HND

Second cycle:

  • typically carries 90-120 ECTS, with a minimum of 60 credits at the level of the second cycle (i.e. the Master cycle)

Third Cycle:

  • the doctoral, typically not credit-rated

Related EU initiatives

The European Union supports the Europe-wide implementation of the three-cycle-system. Given that the implementation is the responsibility of the single member states, there are no directly related EU initiatives.

UK involvement

The three-cycle framework introduced by the Bologna process was essentially based on the system already in place in the UK - the UK therefore had a unique position within the EHEA. Similarly, the English-language terminology to refer to the different degrees has been widely adopted across Europe. However, some substantial differences remain: while the term 'Master', for instance, is used in many different systems for the second cycle degree, it is not the case that these degrees are also all structurally the same. Indeed, the MA programmes vary considerably across Europe as there is no one single model.

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