The ESU would prefer a more formal external assessment, with visits to investigate procedures and recommend improvements. “The ECTS should be evaluated on a regular basis,” Deca said. “It is not a simple thing and it is not easy to implement, especially the first time.” Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels. Madill acknowledged that a 70% failure rate would be high – if only universities that think they are in with a chance of success are applying. But, he said, “it may be the case that some institutions are using it as a way of having an external test for their processes, and therefore will be quite happy to go through the process of failing one application, getting the feedback and then having a successful second application”. Student representatives are less positive. “The criteria are quite loose, and the fact that with these criteria only a third of the institutions passed is not a very good sign,” said Ligia Deca, chairwoman of the European Students’ Union (ESU). Student criticisms include the amount of discretion given to individual evaluators. Under the re-launched scheme, applications are assessed by national agencies rather than by the Commission itself. Assessment There is also a feeling that the assessment is too shallow. For instance, to win an ECTS label a university only has to submit six correctly completed dossiers, three from incoming and three from outgoing students. “Granting a label and putting it on an institution for five years because you have analysed six student dossiers is not the best way forward,” said Deca. “If I were a student I don’t know how much notice I would take of them,” she said. When Ján Figel’, the European commissioner for education, announced in June that 65 European universities had won ‘mobility labels’, he sounded a celebratory note. “Today’s label holders are outstanding examples of institutions that are serious about European academic mobility in a rapidly changing higher education sector,” he said. But the scheme has a troubled history: it was set up in 2003 but was closed down in 2006 because universities seemed unable to meet the criteria. All the labels awarded during that phase have now expired. Although the two labels – one for the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and the other for the diploma supplement – are not obligatory for universities, they represent a high-profile endorsement that systems are running as intended. They should also be attractive for students. The ECTS helps students gain recognition for their studies abroad, as it awards credits in a standardised way. The diploma supplement does less, but its standardised description of studies is intended to improve the international ‘readability’ of degrees and encourage study abroad. It is supposed to be issued automatically and free of charge to all students. Slow progress Both mechanisms are fundamental to the Bologna higher education reforms and should have been fully implemented years ago. The continuing slow pace of progress is one reason why the labels are back. The Commission says that its consultations with “stakeholders” on the feasibility of a re-launch of the labels showed that “there was a clear need for the labels” as a means of encouraging implementation of the Bologna reforms. The Commission is pleased with the re-launch so far. So too are universities. “I think the results are encouraging,” said Gerard Madill of the European University Association’s higher education policy unit. Of the 63 universities that have sought an ECTS label, 23 have been successful. Of the 161 that wanted confirmation that their diploma supplements met the Commission’s requirements, 52 have won approval. To others, a success rate of around 30% may seem low, but it is much higher than when the scheme ran before.