2010 Policy Paper “European structures for qualifications” (2001)

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The two-tier system has generated a lot of interest. The Bologna Declaration mentions the fact that “the degree awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the labour market”. This sentence and its implications for students are up to this moment still unclear. In this policy paper ESIB will offer its view on the two-tier system and the relevance it has for students. ESIB will also point out certain risks connected with this system.


For the creation of the European higher education area the higher education community needs many different types of tools. Introducing a two-tier system is one of these tools. In the European higher education area the two-tier system would be a compatible degree framework, which would enhance mobility. This framework will integrate the sub-sectors of higher education into one higher education system while at the same time raising the attractiveness of the European higher education area.

A compatible degree system would help to integrate the higher education system because of the increase of transparency of degree systems. It will provide students from the different subsectors in higher education with the opportunity to switch studies or to continue studying a second degree in the same field after finishing a first degree in the other sub-sector nationally or internationally. Nationally it gives all students programmes built on the same structure and thus the same amount of credits. A two-tier system in the whole of Europe would make the European structure for qualifications recognisable for all. The increase in possibilities for vertical mobility will in turn increase the diversity within the European higher education area.

As educational systems in Europe should be trying to attract students from all groups in society every means possible should be utilised to reach this goal. Longer study periods are a financial and psychological deterrent for certain social groups to enter higher education. Introducing exit points and bridges between different sub-sectors will increase the attractiveness of higher education to all groups in society. The main arguments for implementing a two-tier system are these intermediary exit points. In traditionally long curricula those students that drop out, for whatever reason, often do not receive any kind of degree. Awarding a first degree after already finishing the first cycle would ensure that these students would leave higher education with a recognised qualification. This increased flexibility would give the student more opportunity to be an active and self-directive learner.

The first and second cycle

The first and second cycle have different educational goals. These goals differ from country to country, programme to programme and course to course. However, there is a need to define the first and second cycle. A division can be made, in both the first and second cycle, between more academic and more professionally orientated studies. The definitions of these two orientations will be an ongoing discussion in the higher education field.

The first cycle degree with a more academic orientation should introduce scientific thinking, reflective thinking, general academic skills and competencies. It contains courses on a specific field of science given in a broader perspective and linked to other relevant scientific fields. It gives the student an overview of the field and prepares the student for the second cycle whose content is connected to the previously completed undergraduate programme. Academic orientated programmes in the second cycle can concentrate more on one narrow area of science without excluding the possibility of an interdisciplinary orientation. The aim of these programmes must be that students (amongst others) can conduct independent scientific research in their field of study.

The more professionally orientated programmes of the first cycle should prepare the student for a position in the labour market in the field of study. The programmes introduce reflective thinking and general professional skills and competencies. The content of the courses are directly related to the required knowledge for that field of work and applied sciences. A professionally orientated second cycle must deepen the knowledge of a certain professional field and introduce specific professional skills and knowledge in a specific professional field. The above distinction is not applicable to all programmes throughout Europe, it is important to ensure flexibility in building programmes, which means that we recognise that the above mentioned characteristics can be combined in other ways.

Matters of concern

The introduction of a two-tier system should not be a way of simply introducing more cost efficiency into the higher education system. It cannot be part of proposals for budget cuts or for limiting any kind of access to and in higher education. Changing the European structures for qualification should lead to a more diverse system of higher education. Unification of programmes within a European context is therefore unwanted and a danger to the attractiveness of the European higher education area.

To ensure access in all fields, reasonable transition mechanisms between the first and second cycle should be established, both within the same higher education sector and between different higher education sectors. Completion of the first cycle of studies must always give the student access to the appropriate second cycle. Therefore no tuition fees or other restrictions will be required to enter the first or second cycle.

Different disciplines have their own characteristics and they have to be taken into serious consideration when developing degree structures. It should be clear that in some fields the first degree would not always serve as an independent qualification leading to a labour market relevant professional competence. However, in those fields an intermediate qualification may also be worth developing for the reasons mentioned above.


Implementing a first degree/second degree system has to be done in a flexible way in order to sustain the national characteristics and diversity that is essential to European higher education. The system of two degrees is one way to enhance mobility, to integrate higher education and to make higher education more attractive for certain social groups. In the diverse European higher education area, education should always take into account and respect the national needs of higher education, but also facilitate the common needs of the whole area.

Board Meeting 41, May 2001, Slovakia


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