The president of European University Association, Michael Murphy, told an online meeting of higher education stakeholders and policy-makers that it was up to the 27 member states of the European Union whether a new strategy for higher education cooperation and system-level reforms proposed by the European Commission would see Europe sitting at the global top table for education, research and innovation with leading players like China and the United States in the decades to come.
The European Strategy for Universities and recommendations for building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation were unveiled by the European Commission on 18 January, as University World News reported last week.
On 27 January, the European University Association (EUA) hosted an online discussion on the proposals, which attracted 1,800 registrations from 78 countries, to hear directly from EU representatives and those charged with implementing the strategy.
Opening the event, Murphy reminded the audience that a year ago the EUA published its own vision for ‘universities without walls’, with a focus on openness and engagement with society, as University World News reported.
He welcomed the European Commission’s “positive vision for open, engaged and autonomous universities”, which shared similar aspirations to the EUA and pointed to the progress made in higher education cooperation in Europe during two decades through what is known as the Bologna Process.
Varying autonomy and investment
However, he warned that European universities were “still combating unnecessary barriers to collaboration” due to varying degrees of autonomy and uneven levels of public investment in different EU member states.
To try to make progress, the EUA brought together representatives from higher education, member states and the European Commission to review transnational university collaboration and consider how to overcome system-level barriers.
The discussion was moderated by Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, EUA policy coordinator, who said: “Despite two decades of reform through the Bologna Process, we still have some barriers and challenges, and the European Universities Initiative and the alliances that have developed over the past few years have brought these challenges very much to the surface.”
Peter Lievens, vice-rector for international policy at KU Leuven – a leading research university in Belgium – and member of the board of directors of the Una Europa university alliance, said the EU-inspired cross-border alliances were “a game changer” in bringing together European universities sharing the same values and ambitions.
The Una Europa alliance, to which his university belongs, was one of the first 17 pilots launched several years ago and now covers 50,000 students in nine countries, but “despite all the hard work to try to create innovative new programmes and multilingual, interdisciplinary courses, we have encountered barriers and boundaries”, he said.
Challenges to creating joint degrees
Lievens said: “One of the things we have been working on intensively at KU Leuven is a joint bachelor degree in European studies, where our experts have really been facing quite challenging circumstances.
“Some creative solutions came up and now we are ready for the first cohort in the new academic year, having obtained accreditation by the accreditation organisations of the Netherlands and Flanders.”
But other university members of the alliance in different countries had found it impossible to use this European approach for quality assurance of joint programmes as it is not implemented in the same way in different countries.
“At the moment we are not able to award a degree simultaneously with all partner institutions in the Una alliance,” Lievens told the EUA event.
European approach needed for accreditation
“So, what we are pleading for is a European approach and full implementation in all member states, without further national requirements,” he said.
Lievens argued that it is crucial to offer the possibility of accreditation through a single European quality assurance register for higher education.
“That of course implies some trust in the system by all the member states,” he agreed, but at the moment “quite strict regulations in some countries” prevents progress to creating interdisciplinary programmes.
He said he welcomed the European Commission proposal for a recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation, which will now go to the Council of the European Union – the body representing member states at a ministerial level.
“This is a major step forward, but what we are really calling for is full implementation of the European approach at one place and for all member states to allow higher education institutions to put in place suitable approaches when they have joint efforts on joint degrees – for admissions, for enrolment and for credit allocation and many other issues that are sometimes hampering swift cooperation.”
Without that, member states will continue to come up against obstacles to working together “without borders getting in the way”, he said.
Longer discussion about legal framework
Florian Pecenka, head of the unit for education and research at the permanent representation of Austria to the EU, gave a view from the EU member states and also welcomed the European Commission’s proposed strategy and said he hoped it could be implemented and “taken one step further”.
However, he wants “longer discussion” about a proposed legal framework, saying: “We need a test bed for this to see how it can work in practice, but also what the next barriers are that we may encounter.”
Pecenka said he had heard from many universities about “the administrative burden when setting up a joint degree”, adding that it was becoming “an instrument that people don’t like very much because it involves a huge amount of work”.
Alliances are ‘test beds’ for transnational cooperation
Responding to the points raised, Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, head of the higher education unit in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, said they saw the European Universities alliances created so far as “test beds” and their added value is highlighting “the limits when universities are thinking of putting in place deep transnational cooperation”.
Solutions, she said, should be applicable to the entire higher education sector and not just to the universities in such alliances, which are due to scale up to 60 in number, representing 500 institutions, according to the Commission’s proposed strategy.
Debiais-Sainton agreed there was a “lack of clarity in the way the Bologna instruments are implemented between different member states, including the degree structure”, which meant there were different regulations for joint degrees between member states.
“What we have been asking the university alliances to do is really to dream the university of the future, to come up with interdisciplinary approaches to support the graduates of the future.”
Recommendations now go to Council of the EU
She said the European Commission proposals will now go forward for discussion among government representatives from member states on the Council of the EU.
The key recommendations include:
• Member states to give more autonomy to their higher education institutions in the context of transnational education over admission and enrolment criteria.
• More autonomy to be granted over the language of instruction and sharing online learning together with more flexible learning pathways.
• Mobility in different forms.
• Support for high quality virtual learning.
• Strengthen trust for quality assurance mechanism, to really foster an institutional quality assurance approach.
• Accredit not only the programme but also the institution, to move from a programme accreditation to institutional accreditation (for joint degrees).
Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.