Bologna, Pisa, Curriculum 21

Bologna, Pisa, Curriculum 21

What have educational reforms to do with cultural hegemony?

by Dieter Sprock

More and more parents throughout Europe are wondering what is going on in the schools in their countries. Their children no longer learn to properly read, write and count, and parents spend hours after their work, to teach them what would actually be the school’s task. Private learning aids are booming.
Many masters complain about their candidates’ lack of apprenticeship entry maturity, who often are not even able to understand an instruction manual or to solve simple arithmetic problems.
And the universities are faced with students who often bring along neither the subject-specific nor the mental requirements for studying. The number of dropouts in most countries is 30 percent and more, in technology subjects it is even significantly higher, up to 50 percent.1 The economy lacks qualified workers.
The problems are well known. For more than twenty years in many European countries conformist school and university reforms have been following one another where two international organisations act as key players, namely the OECD, responsible for managing the school develop­ments via Pisa, and the EU with the Bologna process at tertiary level.

How Bologna has changed the university landscape

On 19 June 1999, at the University of Bologna the EU Ministers of Education signed a declaration of intent for the European education area, the so-called “Bologna Declaration”, by means of which European Higher Education was adapted to the American Bachelor/Master system.
Also present was a seven-member Swiss delegation, consisting of representatives of politics and science, headed by State Secretary Charles Kleiber. This one signed the declaration as well – against the advice of the accompanying University Rectors – whereby also in Switzerland the conversion to the Anglo-American system was introduced without prior discussion. Just one week earlier the Plenary Assembly of the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities had declared that the present declaration was unacceptable for Switzerland.2
Via Bologna a uniform European educational area was to be created and the duration of study to be shortened. Uniform criteria and methods of quality control, the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), were to make the achievements in the various study courses and countries measurable and comparable. Thus, mobility and employability of students were to be improved and the competitiveness of European Universities vis à vis global competition was to be safeguarded.
Nothing was achieved. The result has been a market economy-oriented and bureaucratic monster restricting the freedom of teaching and research and transforming universities into economic businesses and students into customers. Financially strong companies are increasingly pushing research in a direction that promises profit. “More competition, more performance, more efficiency - and above all, more Europe [i.e. EU] these are the slogans”, Matthias Daum writes in Die Zeit.3
In an interview with the Sonntagszeitung, the Zurich sociologist and critic of Bologna, Kurt Imhof, speaks of “bulimia-learning: guzzeling, vomiting, forgetting”. The doctrine was reduced to the mainstream. And the teaching staff was forced to “standardize the knowledge and then to query it via multiple-choice tests.” Knowledge, nowadays, was transmitted through a funnel and checked at the end. “Students no longer think outside the box. Due to a lack of time they are no longer able to deal critically with anything and they are increasingly limited to what is current”, Imhof says.4

How PISA redesigns the “Volksschule” (primary and secondary school) and controls the learning content

The transformation of the “Volksschule” which, through the propagation of individualising learning methods had its beginning in the late sixties, received a new push by PISA. Fueled by the overwhelming media coverage, the publication of the first test results led at the beginning of this century in some European countries to the so-called “PISA shock”. Subsequently and in the spirit of the PISA-makers they began to align their education policies for a better performance in the “international comparison” and to coordinate the learning content with the tests. In this way, the learning content was to be standardised, and made measurable and controllable worldwide. “The supposedly neutral PISA-test”, says didactics lecturer Jochen Krautz in an interview with the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, “leads to a completely new concept of education. It is no longer about knowledge, but the ability of adaptation.”5
Closely associated with PISA is the competency orientation. But in the sense of the PISA tests such competence has nothing to do with the notion of competent people whom we all cherish, but leads to an action-oriented trivialisation of the school.
The individualising learning methods do not mean individual support, as some well-meaningly might have believed, but isolation. They are aimed at the abolition of classroom teaching. Teachers are not supposed to teach students any longer, but to be “facilitators”. Accordingly, the new teaching materials are drawn up in such way that students can learn alone with them, supported by the Internet, and correct their results themselves. Teachers are to be replaced by the computer. The digital classroom is no longer just a utopia, although we know not only since Hattie6 that learning success depends essentially on the mediation of a teacher. At all times and everywhere people knew about this and therefore took great care in ensuring to pass on their knowledge and culture to their children.7 Why did it come to such a break?

The Seizure of Switzerland and Curriculum 21

In order for this shift of paradigm in Switzerland to be made possible, the elementary schools had to be loosened from their direct-democratic anchoring. The supervision of schools, which until ten years ago was performed by representatives of the municipal and district school care, elected by the people for four years, has been partly transferred to so-called professional “expert bodies for school assessment”, none of which is democratically legitimated. The members of the school board, who in line with the Swiss understanding of democracy presided over the schoolhouse as equals, were replaced by principals with extensive decision-making powers. Both were necessary to enforce the totally unpractical reforms imposed from above.
A study carried out by proponents (!) of the reforms in the research field “State  in transformation”(!) at the University of Bremen describes in surprise how the reformers succeeded in eliminating the “veto players” in Switzerland and in significantly shaping through cle­ver manipulation the domestic debate on the reforms of the education system.8
This process resulted in the Curriculum 21. Its purpose is to enshrine the already implemented reforms and to bring into line the schools in default.

“Why did they go for PISA?”

In his work “Why did they go for PISA?” Roman Langer, sociologist and assistant professor at the Institute of Education and Psychology at the Johannes Keppler University in Linz considers the question which political constellations and intentions have led to the formation and enforcement of PISA.9
He breaks the development down into three phases, starting with the so-called “Sputnik shock”, which the US experienced in the face of the first Soviet satellite in space in 1957, and to which it answered with an education initiative.
The second phase began also with a shock, this time triggered by the disastrous results of the national education report, “A Nation at Risk” by the US itself in the early eighties. As a result and under the threat of its withdrawal the federal government urged the OECD to develop international educational standards. They wanted to enforce control over the educational policies of the US states similar to the cantons in Switzerland and the federal states in Germany. The OECD gave in to the pressure. Thus, it became the most important educational actor and invented PISA.
The third phase is characterised by the definition of a political and economic strategy for the EU member states through the European Council. Triggered by the “post-socialist globalisation process” and shocked by the results of the first PISA test the German-speaking countries, including Switzerland, took over the educational standards developed in the US and propagated by the OECD, although, according to Langer, the US itself had “made far from uniformly positive experiences” with it. The competency models of the OECD were also adopted without critical examination (Langer p. 62).
Internationalisation of education policy
A great number of studies now exist that are concerned with the management of education policy by international organisations such as the OECD and the EU. The University of Bremen has established a special collaborative research project on this subject, from which also the previously mentioned paper “Soft Governance in Education. The Pisa Study and the Bologna Process in Switzerland” originated.
In their work on “Paradoxien der Neuen Staatsräson. Die Internationalisierung der Bildungspolitik in der EU und der OECD” (“Paradoxes of the New Reason of State. The Internationalisation of Education Policy in the EU and the OECD”)10 the social scientists Kerstin Martens and Klaus Dieter Wolf examine the growing influence of international organisations on the education policy of the nation states and come to the conclusion that, in recent years, both the EU and the OECD have unexpectedly gained in importance in the field of national education reforms. They were surprised “to find a policy area on the international agenda, which – as part of cultural and educational sovereignty – had hitherto been firmly anchored in the national political systems”. Surprising is also “the degree of shaping power” which both organisations could attain, although “they have no legal responsibility for the educational sector”. According to the authors, their success is attributable to a “manipulation of the balance of power within the states”, in which both organisations use their influence on the political cadres of the national governments to enforce their interests (Martens and Wolf, p. 145f). There is nothing more to add to this.


If you are willing to take a close look, there can be no doubt about the influence exerted by the two US-dominated organisations, the OECD and the EU, on Europe‘s education policy. And it is incomprehensible that the European countries and, unfortunately, even Switzerland are willing to accept American educational standards, although the US – apart from a few elite schools and universities, which do not teach according to these principles – are known for their poor educational system.
The consequences of this misguided policy are all too obvious and have been widely described. Meanwhile, objections have been raised against it in many countries. “Einspruch!” (that is to say “objection”) is also the title of a brochure, published in Switzerland by renowned intellectuals, which has now gone into the fourth expanded edition with a print run of around 10,000 copies.11
Parents have teamed up demanding that their children shall be taught again in their schools.12 And in most German-speaking cantons initiatives against the introduction of Curriculum 21 have already been submitted – with far more signatures than would have been necessary.13
Only the voice of politics has been missing so far. With regard to the approach politics takes in its dealings with critics, Langer speaks of a four-phase-model: Initially, criticism will be ignored and hushed up, then the critics will be vilified as incompetent or driven by improper motives. While some isolated problems are subsequently conceded, they are in the same breath minimized as inconsiderable, and finally it will be alleged that the criticisms are well-known and have long since been refuted (p.64). I leave it to the well-disposed reader to decide what stage we have currently reached.

What does all this have to do with cultural hegemony?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, author of “The Grand Chessboard. American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives”14, pays particular attention to America’s “cultural domination”, which, he writes, has “been an underappreciated facet of American global power”. America’s mass culture exercises a magical appeal, especially on young people all over the world. “American television programs and films account for about three-fourths of the global market. American popular music is equally dominant, while American fads, eating habits, and even clothing are increasingly imitated worldwide. The language of the Internet is English, and an overwhelming proportion of the global computer chatter also originates from America, influencing the content of global communication.” And finally, America has become a Mecca for young people seeking advanced education. Annually, nearly half a million foreign students flock to the United States, with many of the most gifted never returning home. Graduates from American universities are represented in almost every cabinet around the globe. (Brzezinski, p. 25)
Brzezinski leaves no doubt that America is ready to use these advantages in its favour. American dominance, he writes, “is exercised through a global system of distinctively American design”. To a much greater extent than earlier imperial systems, the American “global system emphasises the technique of co-optation”. Likewise, it relies heavily on the “indirect exercise of influence on dependent foreign elites”. (Brzezinski, p. 25)
It only remains to be hoped that Brzezinski’s provocative outspokenness will also give our politicians food for thought.    •

1    Schmidt, Mario. “Studienabbrecher. Lasst sie nicht fallen” (“College dropouts. Do not drop them.”)
    Discontinuations at Swiss universities.
2    Müller, Barbara, Die Anfänge der Bologna-Reform in der Schweiz (The Beginnings of the Bologna Reforms in Switzerland) (Bern 2012), p 155
3    Daum, Matthias. “Sie können das nicht unterzeichnen!” (“You cannot sign that!”)
4    Kurt Imholz in an interview with Sebastian Ramspeck and Balz Spörri in Sonntagszeitung
31 October 2009.
5    Krautz, Jochen, “Den Pisa-Test sollte man abschaffen” (“The Pisa test should be abolished”), Interview with Claudia Wirz in Neue “Zürcher Zeitung” from 14 July 2014.
6    Hattie, John, Visible Learning (London, New York, 2009)
7    Felten, Michael, Auf die Lehrer kommt es an! (The Teacher Makes a Difference) (Gütersloh, 2010)
8    Bieber, Tonia, Soft Governance in Education, The PISA Study and the Bologna Process in Switzerland, TranState Working Paper No. 117 (Bremen, 2010). For a German translation, see
9    Langer, Roman, “Warum haben die Pisa gemacht?” (“Why did they go for Pisa?”) in Langer, Roman (ed.), Warum tun die das? Governanceanalysen zum Steuerungshandeln in der Schulentwicklung (Wiesbaden, 2008), pp. 49-72.
10    Martens, Kerstin and Wolf, Klaus Dieter in Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen 13/2 (2006), pp 145-176,
11    Pichard, Alain and Kissling, Beat (eds.), Einspruch! Kritische Gedanken zu Bologna, Harmos und Lehrplan 21 (Objection! Critical thoughts concerning Bologna, Harmos and Curriculum 21)
13    www.lehrplan21-no .ch / media / news / 20160210_karte_ch_gegen_lp21_beiblatt.pdf
14    Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Chessboard, American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York, 1997).

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