Ministers debate the future of higher education

Meeting in Brussels earlier this week, national ministers discussed reviewing the modernisation agenda for higher education.

By Erik Tate

01 Jun 2016

The representative of the Netherlands Presidency said that higher education plays a crucial role in individual self-fulfilment and societal development. It also has the complicated task of preparing students for a rapidly changing labour market and complex challenges. High quality education and inspiring teaching staff are both crucial. Almost five years after the previous agenda, the time is ripe to take stock of the progress and discuss any new challenges that have since emerged. There will be fresh initiative in the higher education field by the European Commission, she explained, making note of the broad consultation launched earlier this year. In the context of the ongoing consultations the Netherlands Presidency held a conference on this in March. The aim of today’s exchange of views is to take this to the political level and discuss the most pressing issues.

Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said that higher education is vital for the future of our economies, societies and Europe as a whole. Europe is emerging from a period of economic crisis and the global economy is changing fast. At the same time, recent events in and around Europe illustrate how the social concepts underpinning ours societies are coming under strain. Higher education must be a big part of the answer to these challenges, he said.

From an economic perspective one thing is clear; they need to upskill. Almost half of job openings in the EU will soon require higher-level qualifications, meaning that the expansion of the higher education was the right approach. However, they also need to make sure that people acquire knowledge and skills for the future. As many graduate jobs are disappearing, students must be creative, critical thinkers and problem solvers. Universities provide a space for free thinking and free speech, and should develop a willingness for people to engage in the world and societies around them.

Higher education institutions are responding to these challenges by making changes were necessary. However, governments have a role in setting the framework and creating favourable environments for effective higher education. The European Commission aims to support governments and institutions to make effective choices, he concluded.

The Estonian representative gave a presentation on increasing the labour market relevance of higher education. He said that over the past decade higher education has been expanded very quickly, and statistics show that only 5% of higher education graduates are unemployed. However, this has brought other challenges to the labour market. According to the results of public surveys, a remarkable number of students and employers have underlined that graduates’ knowledge and skills do not meet the needs of the labour market. Many graduates have also had to accept jobs for which they are overqualified. It is clear that more should be done, both at the Member State and EU level. In this regard, they should share best practices on how to overcome these mismatches.

He explained that Estonia has put a lot of effort in to creating a system of labour market monitoring and having future skills cooperation with employers. There a current pilot projects undergoing in ICT, accounting and forestry skills, with the aim of analysing the skills requirements. They are also seeing encouraging progress on entrepreneurship scheme and workplace learning. While they already know the number of graduates being employed after their studies, more indicators could take into account the level of cooperation between universities and business, as well as the wages of the graduates. Lecturers and academics and are independent, but have the responsibility for making sure that higher education correlates to labour market needs.

The Slovenian representative gave a presentation on the changing roles of teaching staff. She said that being a teacher, university lecturer or professor is a life-time dedication in which they provide moral authority and encourage creativity. Addressing the needs of the labour market means constantly evolving while also being a good mentor to students. They should do more to empower teachers to provide a better understanding of society and assist students in preparing for the labour market. They have to focus more on teaching staff because none of the goals they are setting can be achieved without the teachers, lecturers and professors who can adopt to modern circumstances. Teachers need systems to develop their pedagogic knowledge and skills. They should do more for those who primarily teach and reward them; they should at least think about a shift from research-oriented career pathways to teaching-oriented career pathways.

The quality of teaching also needs to be underlined as a key pillar and should be one of the areas for assessment by national quality assurance agencies. They should stress more widely, she said, and not only at the national level. Internationalisation at home and internationalised curricula are also important. Students remain only partially mobile, so teachers need to be able to teach in an international educational spirit. This can be done by exposing them to international environments and sharing best practices. However, higher education teaching staff are lacking systems to develop pedagogic knowledge and skills; academics who prioritise teaching should be better rewarded and still have good career prospects.

When thinking about cross-border cooperation, fellowship schemes could be developed to support excellence in teaching, she said. They could invite the Commission to think of such a scheme of excellence through Eramus+ or Horizon 2020. Existing mobility programmes are only shaped for short-term mobility; they could perhaps think more broadly about other possibilities. Fellowships with adequate funds and longer teaching exchanges would allow them to build a pool of European excellence and would contribute towards the modernisation agenda, she concluded.

The Belgian representative gave a presentation on preparing engaged citizens. She said that society needs to show resilience in current times, and they need to underline the importance of being able to reflect critically. Higher education requires having and continuing critical stances, which is important for having engaged citizens. The conveying of knowledge and skills should go hand-in-hand with actions and awareness. Recent events have highlighted the core values on which they are speaking about and these are being put under pressure. Radicalisation is the number one enemy of our democracy, she said; training people who can think critical is the only way to ensure that free dialogue can be the basis of our societal model. Innovation is important but first and foremost creativity must be fostered. Higher education institutions and universities must engage with the communities within which they reside. She said that she supported calls from Austria to ensure a modernisation of European higher education, and that they should therefore address the challenges that face them in terms of mobility. There are some excellent opportunities available if they can pool resources and share best practices, she concluded.

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