LONDON, England (CNN) -- The latest stage in an ambitious program to harmonize postgraduate degrees around Europe has just begun, with particularly significant potential implications for business schools.
A continent at one: The new deal will help European schools.
Launched this month, the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education, or EQAR, will be a watchdog for teaching standards, intended to make sure students -- especially those based outside the continent -- looking to attend a European institution are able to gauge the quality of the program on offer.
It marks the next stage in the so-called Bologna Process, an arcane sounding series of reforms which, despite their apparent complexity, have nonetheless transformed the landscape of postgraduate education in Europe, particularly business courses.
Named after the Italian city where it was signed in 1999, the Bologna deal saw education ministers from all around Europe agree to introduce a series of common standards for masters degrees by 2010.
Central to this is a change to the timing of course lengths, meaning a typical undergraduate degree will now be taken over three of four years, with the masters then lasting either two or one.
This is similar to the model already widely used in the UK, but other countries have markedly different systems -- for example, German first degrees usually take longer and are viewed as equivalent to a masters degree.
The harmonization process, now extended to 46 countries with the EQAR initiative, is viewed as vital so Europe's postgraduate programs -- notably MBAs and other business degrees -- can compete on an equal footing with others around the world.
When the Bologna Accord was finalized in 2005, the Graduate Management Admission Council, which represents business schools around the globe, predicted that a post-Bologna boom in postgraduate studies could see 12,000 new business courses formed.
European schools have certainly done well in the interim, both in terms of admission numbers and quality. To take just one example, in the latest Financial Times global MBA rankings, London Business School secured second place, the first European institution to get that high and challenge the dominance of leading US schools.
European schools believe they have a chance to expand their share of the international executive education market, in part because of obstacles that are appearing around the traditionally attractive United States.
A combination of high-priced tuition and tighter visa restrictions are causing many prospective business executives to rethink plans to study in the United States and instead find an appropriate course in Europe.
The new EQAR is responsible for ensuring educational quality assurance agencies in individual member nations are doing their jobs properly, and, according to its organizers, marks "a milestone in the Bologna Process reforms."
"It aims to provide clear and objective information about trustworthy quality assurance agencies that are working in Europe," a statement from the organizing body said.
"It also aims to help improve the quality of European higher education and to promote greater student mobility by increasing trust between higher education institutions."
The new register, which is voluntary, will begin work this summer. E-mail to a friend