The European Commission’s new higher education package is welcomed by Europe’s universities. It provides us with a positive, supportive narrative that respects our role in driving the transition to a more sustainable world. The Package also proposes initiatives that will facilitate cooperation between universities in Europe and beyond.
Its success will be measured by concrete changes for universities and their communities on the ground. However, as EU level competences in education policy are limited, EU member states must now make it happen by connecting European level initiatives with national reform discourses and efforts.
The proposed new EU instruments, such as a European degree, a European legal statute for university alliances and a framework for higher education careers, do not replace the need for system level reforms at the national and regional levels. To the contrary: Europe needs national system level reforms.
This should include countries implementing the tools and rules that they have already signed up to through the Bologna Process. Importantly, it will require joined-up, holistic approaches encompassing university missions in research, education, innovation, and culture that will enable institutions to fully play their role in service of society.
National reforms are also necessary to unleash the potential of deeper transnational collaboration. The same goes for EU level investments: these are important to underpin policy initiatives and support transnational collaboration and mobility, but they can never replace long-term national investments.
“The strategy is welcome as it brings new momentum to the discussion, but it is clear that new EU instruments can only be an addition to national reform efforts”
European degrees and legal statute: new EU instruments alone will not do the trick
The higher education package launched by the European Commission on January 18 included the European Strategy for Universities and a proposal for a Council recommendation on building bridges for higher education cooperation. While the plan outlines the broad societal role universities play through their missions in education, research, innovation and culture, EU level actions are rightly focused on transnational collaboration - the area where the EU framework provides clear added value to the sector.
The four flagships: the expansion of the European Universities Initiative to 60 alliances encompassing more than 500 higher education institutions; a pathway towards European degrees; a European legal statute for university alliances; and the scale-up of the European Student Card (a unique digital identifier), are aimed at facilitating deeper transnational collaboration among universities from different European countries.
The strategy is welcome as it brings new momentum to the discussion, but it is clear that new EU instruments can only be an addition to national reform efforts. The European Universities Initiative has put a spotlight on the numerous obstacles towards transnational university collaboration in Europe ranging from diverging requirements for study programmes and their accreditation and diverse policies on tuition fees to issues around the interoperability of digital systems used by universities - to name a few. Some of these issues are not new as they already challenge, to different degrees, other types of transnational collaboration; they have been discussed in the context of the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area for more than two decades.
While universities surely need to do their part in adapting practices where they can, it is crucial that member states implement the tools that they already agreed to at the political level (such as the existing tool for accrediting transnational joint programmes, just one concrete example). It is very important that reforms improve and make systems more flexible for all universities that could benefit from transnational collaboration, rather than creating exceptions for just a few.
“While universities surely need to do their part in adapting practices where they can, it is crucial that member states implement the tools that they already agreed to at the political level”
Career framework as test case for synergies
Beyond transnational collaboration, one of the priorities for action identified by Europe’s universities in “Universities without walls – A vision for 2030” is the reform of academic careers to make them less precarious, more flexible and attractive and recognising the contribution of academics beyond what they write in prestigious journals. Reform of researcher careers has long been a topic at the EU level in the framework of the European Research Area; now, in the new Strategy, the European Commission proposes to work additionally on a framework for higher education careers in synergy with the one for research careers.
The phrasing leaves open what this would concretely look like. One can hope that there is still room for promoting a more holistic approach towards academic careers, valorising all kinds of contributions. This is a test case for making synergies concrete. However, here the challenge is the same as for the European degree and legal statute – any European framework can only be complementary to national level efforts.
EU and national investments: an opportunity for better alignment
Investments have to go hand in hand with reforms. Here the European Strategy for Universities estimates that €80 billion of EU funding will go to the sector over the period from 2021-2027. This sounds important but it is not new money. The estimate reflects and projects what has been foreseen under the current long-term EU budget. Beyond the EU programmes like Horizon Europe, Erasmus+, Regional and Social Funds, it also includes funding under the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility and related national plans.
Regarding the latter, member states’ approaches differ widely: while support to universities and system reforms are explicit in some national plans, in others it is difficult to see the opportunities in the way the plans are put together or how priorities have been put elsewhere. Improving alignment of EU and national funding will be important to increase the firepower supporting European research, innovation, education, and universities.
Discussions on new EU instruments as vehicle for a much bigger debate
The fact that member states have the most leeway for concrete changes does not mean we should forget about EU instruments. Beyond the potential merits of the instruments as such, the discussions around European degrees and a European legal statute are an important vehicle for bringing the remaining challenges to the surface and to the attention of policymakers and university leaders alike.
Whether new EU instruments are part of the solution is yet to be seen. They remain to be elaborated and tested; the pilot phase will be crucial. Fitness for purpose, flexibility and adaptability for different needs and contexts must be the decisive factor, rather than political concerns over EU competences. The good old EU principle of subsidiarity eventually means that decisions should be taken, and solutions must be found closest to the level where they have to be applied and can be most effective. In this case – as often – this means all levels have to work together, European, national, regional and local. The full potential of Europe’s universities remains to be unleashed.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group