Say Bologna and most European university teachers will start screaming uncontrollably by now. The reason is that we aren’t talking about the old Italian town as such and not even the ancient University of Bologna but the Bologna process which is intented to create a standardised system of university degrees in most of Europe.
From a Swedish perspective, Bologna has created two problems in particular:
First, Sweden has up until now never had anything like the US or UK Master of Art/Science/whatever, the Danish kandidateksamen or the German Diplom.
The D-level courses and magisterexamen introduced during the 1990s were a half-way measure in a system which basically only offered what in an English terminology would be 3- or 4-year Bachelor exams and Ph.D.s. Thus, a lot of work has gone into re-inventing the wheel and the deep saucer in the form of Masters Programmes in different subjects and combinations of subjects.
One particular problem has been that many Swedish universities and colleges in general and a lot of subjects even at larger universities are in fact too small to support M.A.-programmes on their own. Maybe this should be seen as an unanticipated consequence of the expansion of Swedish higher education during the 1990s.
Another fascinating aspect has been the attempts to circumvent the 5-year M.A. by keeping a particular Swedish magister-level in the system. Institutional rigidities die late.
Second, standardising higher education also raises the question of how credits for courses can be made transferable between universities and colleges – I have fond memories from my time in Copenhagen where students from Roskilde had to take 201 courses in Comparative Politics in order to qualify for the M.A.-level – and especially how marks from individual courses can be translated. Here, Sweden has proved a mind-boggling experience to me.
As a Dane, I was used to a 10-degree scale (thirteen steps from 00 to 13) which was used from the 8th grade in primary school and all the way through secondary school and university to the M.A.-thesis (For your information: My Master’s thesis on “Changes in the Danish party system between 1960 and 1988″ received an 11 back in 1989 and I have a 9,4 on my M.A. in Political Science and Public Administration).
Sweden, on the other hand, is different as there is no national marking system on the college and university level. Generally, universities and colleges use a three-level system (Fail, Pass, Pass with Distinction) but some subjects and programmes stick to a two-level system (Fail and Pass). In practice, marking teachers often extend this with a “Pass after supplementation”. The informal marks “Pass (minus)” and “Pass (plus)” are also used.
Just to give you an impression of the confusion: When I taught at Mid-Sweden University College both the Political Science and Social Work programmes used the three-level system. In UmeŚ Political Science uses the three-level system but Social Work uses a two-level system.
As part of the ECTS (European Credit Transfer System), a seven-level scale was introduced (A-F) and as it is already used for foreign students, the obvious route to go would be to adopt the ECTS-scale on a national level. The Danes did just that by replacing the 13-scale with a 7-step 12-scale (-3 to 12) – and please don’t ask me why it had to be numbers instead of letters. Institutional rigidities would be a safe bet, though.
But in Sweden the marking scale has been a real bone of contention. Educational researchers have warned of the grave dangers to any kind of academic teaching and learning should the three-level scale be replaced with something as hopeless as the ECTS-scale and as it turns out, the decision about future marking scales has been delegated from the Board of Higher Education to individual universities and colleges.
UmeŚ University has followed the – dare I say – conservative line and rejected the ECTS-scale, arguing that moving from the present three-level scale to the ECTS’s seven would endanger educational standards and the psycological situation of the students (I occasionally have the impression that Swedes are expected to descend into deep psychological disorder as soon as they encounter disappointments in everyday life).
So the three-level scale stays with the supplement that the mark VG (pass with distinction) should be translated as “A”, G (pass) as “C” and – intriguingly U (fail) as “Fx”. In the ECTS, Fx is described as “fail – some more work required before the credit can be awarded” while F is “fail Ė considerable further work required”. Actually, Fx equals the present “Godkšnd efter komplettering”, not “Underkšnd”.
This – in my humble opinion – raises two questions:
First, the message to marking teachers in UmeŚ must be that they should be extremely cautious about awarding the mark VG in the future. According to the ECTS criteria, about 10% of students should qualify the the mark “A” – there is a very complicated issue about relative and absolute marks here – but as a rule of thumb, we should expect that around 20-25% of a normal class would be awarded VG.
Second, I get the impression that it will be impossible to fail courses at UmeŚ University in the future – even for students that haven’t produced results that are remotely acceptable. This on the other hand, seems to be a general characteristic of the Swedish educational system. For better or for worse.