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Synergy or cacophony?

Creating European research and education areas requires a transparent and inclusive dialogue, says EUA senior policy coordinator Thomas Jørgensen.

The European Commission’s release of communications on the European Research Area and the European Education Area on 30 September was a historic moment. Just a year ago, this sort of concerted action to strengthen and unite the EU’s approach to research, education and innovation would have been labelled utopian.

But the hoped-for synergies will not appear by themselves. The bodies that advise and steer the ERA and EEA must talk to each other to maintain a common direction. It is crucial that the dialogue is transparent and inclusive—and the details of the communications show that we are not yet at that stage.

The situation is already complicated enough. On the research side, the Commission convenes a wealth of formal and semi-formal groups that look at specific topics such as infrastructures, research careers and open science, while member states come together in the European Research Area and Innovation Committee (ERAC) under the Council of the EU. 

A different framework exists for education, including higher education. Here, the Commission runs a number of expert groups while member states participate in ET2020, the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training, which is mostly a forum for intergovernmental peer learning. In addition, common values and goals for higher education are discussed in the Bologna process, which is run by the Commission and 48 European countries, including all EU member states.

Governance models

For the future, the ERA and EEA releases outline two governance models that are quite separate in form as well as in time. The EEA will have an enabling framework, which will work as a continuation of ET2020 but with a more ambitious remit. 

This will involve setting common targets and aligning policies with wider EU policy, including the ERA. By 2025, this enabling framework will have laid the foundation for a “fully fledged governance framework for the EEA”, according to the EEA communication. 

For the ERA, the Commission will set up a Forum for Transition by 2021, which will gather member states to coordinate policies. This forum will be separate from the ERAC as it will be driven by the Commission and not member states (a non-negligible detail). In parallel, there will be a Pact for Research and Innovation to develop member states’ joint actions. 

There are two major challenges here: dialogue and transparency. With processes that are separate in time and form, it is difficult to see who will be talking to whom at what point. 

Linking up

How will the ERA Forum for Transition, the ERAC, the Pact for Research and Innovation and the EEA enabling framework link up? It will be interesting to see not only how the Commission implements its planned structures but also how member states react and contribute.

The Bologna process—which sits outside the EEA enabling framework but includes many of the same states—complicates things further. It is an existing, fully fledged governance structure with higher education at its heart. It has proven its worth over two decades—although only for higher education, whereas the EEA is for all levels of education.

Then there are the universities, students, academics and funders. They are formal participants in some of these structures, invited ad hoc as experts to others, but they are never all participating at the same time. How they will participate remains to be explored. The emergence of the European Universities Initiative alliances as a testbed for higher education policy reform will not make the picture clearer, as they are already being invited to deliver input and evidence.

This dialogue between the Commission, EU member states, other European countries and stakeholders risks descending into a cacophony of voices talking on top of each other. It will require a serious effort to make coordination work.

A well-organised dialogue will be necessary to promote transparency. When the Commission presents initiatives in the future, they must be based on proper consultation with member states and stakeholders, and in the right context. 

To reach its high ambitions, the EU’s research and education agenda must be owned by all parties; no individual actor can accomplish this single-handedly. Europe needs a common, strong aim—not to be confused with top-down governance—to make its research and education areas a reality. 

Success requires the participation of all relevant parties. This should and must be the guiding principle for a transparent governance structure based on continuous dialogue. 

 

This article was originally published in Research Professional in the autumn of 2020.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Thomas Jorgensen

Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is Senior Policy Coordinator at the European University Association

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