A look at changes to the student population in selected Bologna Countries

Dominic Orr and Galiya Yelubeyeva, @FiBS_Research

Today the Bologna Process Implementation Report has been released. It provides overview quantitative and qualitative data on all 48 signatory states of the Bologna Process, one of the most significant higher education reform programmes we have ever seen. The ministers responsible for higher education are convening in Paris and on Friday 25 May they will release the Paris Communique, which lays out the work programme for all signatory states until the next ministerial meeting in spring 2020.

One of the most important commitments, which is currently included in the draft Paris communique, is to make higher education more inclusive of our populations:

“In order to meet our commitment that the student body entering and graduating from European higher education institutions should reflect the diversity of Europe’s populations, we will improve access and completion by under-represented and vulnerable groups.” – Paris Communique 2018 (draft)

The Bologna Report contains a lot of data for a lot of countries, but this short blog will focus on one simple question and one group of countries:

  • Question: are we seeing changes to the age structure of higher education?
  • Region: so-called non-ESS countries, i.e. those countries which are part of the Bologna Process, but not part of the EU and not usually part of the standard Eurostat statistical system.

The question of age structure is particularly relevant and worth pursuing for three reasons:

  • Many countries are seeing a demographic decline with a shrinking younger population, meaning that their higher education system has to look beyond recruiting younger populations in order to maintain their size (Orr, 2010; Orr & Hovdhaugen, 2014).
  • Having a highly qualified labour force is probably the only sure guarantee of a labour force which can adapt to the future challenges brought on by digitalisation in our economies – and higher education plays a significant role here (cf. Arntz, Gregory, & Zierahn, 2016).
  • Older students tend to study differently (e.g. are more likely to study part-time and to have other commitments alongside their studies) (Hauschildt, Vögtle, & Gwosć, 2018).

The region is interesting for two reasons:

  • Although these are members of the European Higher Education Area and signatories of the Bologna Process, we tend to know less about their developments and dynamics.
  • As these countries are outside the normal European statistical framework, special efforts must be made to collate their data. See the special note on how we did this below.

Participation dynamics at a glance for non-ESS countries

This table presents three statistics for each country and the median for the whole European Higher Education Area (EHEA): (1) the percentage change in the total number of students, (2) percentage change in the enrolment of the age group 18-34 as a percentage of the same aged national population and (3) percentage change in enrolment of students who are 30 years or older. The table therefore shows – the general dynamic, the dynamic applied to the typical student population (using the standard EU indicator) and the dynamic applied to an age group, which has been typically underrepresented in the student population. Changes to the relative size of this latter age group is an indicator for how inclusive higher education might be becoming, especially since this age group probably has a quite different educational biography and career pathway.




  • The EHEA average (median) of all 48 Bologna-countries with data available shows a small growth in the number of students studying (less than 1%) between 2009 and 2014, but a larger relative growth when only the younger age group is viewed and compared to the share of people of the same age in national populations (over 5%). This is a first sight of the demographic decline being experienced by most countries on the European continent.
  • This trend is reflected clearly in the data above for Armenia, Moldova and the Ukraine, where there is an overall decline in both number of students and participation rate, but the decline by participation rate for 18-34 year olds is less dramatic.

An interesting question is whether there are any countries in the table above, which appear to be increasing the number of older students in order to compensate for declines in the number of younger students. This could be justified on the grounds of both being more inclusive of the total national population (“social dimension”), but also providing chances for older people to re-enter the labour force with higher qualifications (“up-skilling”).

  • The overall trend for EHEA countries is, however, a decline in participation of this age group.
  • In the non-ESS countries above four countries, however, do appear to be bucking the trend: Azerbaijan, Moldova, Russia and the Ukraine. This is a positive trend in these countries, especially if they are able to couple such “up-skilling” of the old part of their population with better chances on the labour market. It should be noted, though, that these countries all start from a very low participation rate for older learners, which is well under the EHEA average of 15.7% (1.4%, 7.7%, 11% and 6.3%, resp.), so this may be a first expansion in an effort to catch up with the other European countries.

The only conclusion that can be drawn here is that all countries, including the region observed here, should be making more efforts to include older parts of their populations in higher education. This is part of the agenda going forward to the next Ministerial conference of 2020.

Data from non-ESS countries is what makes the Bologna Process Implementation Report special

This report attempts to cover all 48 signatory members of the Bologna Process, twenty of which are not members of the European Union and 15 of which are not part of the European Statistical System (ESS). That is to say that European reports would not normally have standard statistical data for the following 15 states: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Former-Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Lichtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro, Russian Federation, Serbia and Ukraine. So, in the context of putting together this report special efforts were made in the implementation and collation phase of the Bologna report to include data from these countries.

Much of the data used in the Bologna Report is part of the standard data set collected globally through the joint data collection by UNESCO, OECD and the EU. However, there are differences. Broadly, those countries not within the EU nor members of the OECD have slightly simplified (although comparable) surveys to fill in.

For this reason, a team of researchers from IHS Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna (Martin Unger, Angelika Grabher, David Binder) and FiBS Research in Berlin (Galiya Yelubayeva and me) contacted all 15 countries to survey whether the data required for the Bologna Report was available within the national statistics system and to support the national statisticians in understanding the requirements of the report. The support consisted of email contact, telephone calls and Skype meetings. They were carried out largely in August 2017 and resulted in contact with over 40 national contacts. In some countries, these contacts were necessary in order to identify the correct addressee for the data request, in others, the data request was handled jointly by different agencies. The result of the support is that at least some data is provided by all 15 countries and in most cases the support resulted in an improved data provision in comparison to the first reactions to the formal request for data. That is how the data from many of these countries was able to be included in this report.

References used

Arntz, M., Gregory, T., & Zierahn, U. (2016). The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries – A comparative analysis. OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers (Vol. 2). https://doi.org/10.1787/5jlz9h56dvq7-en

Hauschildt, K., Vögtle, E. M., & Gwosć, C. (2018). Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe. W. Bertelsmann. https://doi.org/10.3278/6001920cw

Orr, D. (2010). Integrating an aging student population into higher education – challenges for evidence-based policy in Europe. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 40(3), 25–42. Retrieved from http://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/cjhe/article/view/2013

Orr, D., & Hovdhaugen, E. (2014). ‘Second chance’ routes into higher education: Sweden, Norway and Germany compared. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(1), 45–61. https://doi.org/10.1080/02601370.2013.873212


[Credits for featured image: Martin Pettitt on Flickr CC BY, Birmingham, The Big Hoot Owls, Wise Old Owl]


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