The European Commission should learn from the Bologna process, which has shown how universities can work together with policymakers to bring about meaningful education reform, argues Tia Loukkola.
The European Commission’s new Communication on the European Education Area is an important milestone, identifying key areas of action ranging from improving the quality of education and training, inclusion and gender equality, to driving the green and digital transitions. It also sets out the establishment of a governance framework for the European Education Area.
The Communication could not have come at a better time. It clearly recognises the crucial role that education plays in knowledge-based societies; addressing our sustainability and digital challenges. The Communication also acknowledges the central role higher education institutions will play in driving the COVID-19 recovery. These are all pertinent and urgent issues. However, for education systems to be able to meet these challenges, EU actions will need to bring added value to the sector as a whole. And clearly, the education sector will need be at the centre of these initiatives, able to participate in dialogue with the EU institutions. This is a must if these ambitions are to be realised.
European and international collaboration are enshrined in the main missions of universities: education, research, innovation and service to society. And after more than 20 years of the Bologna Process, universities bear witness to the benefits and added value of a European framework for educational reforms. This inter-governmental process has shaped the higher education reforms in the participating 48 countries in the European Higher Education Area and supported mutual understanding and trust between the systems - resulting in increased collaboration as well as greater student and staff mobility.
Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that one of the flagship initiatives of the European Education Area, the European Universities Initiative, which aims to boost cross-border cooperation, has received enthusiastic take up. Indeed, the Communication sets high goals for higher education by aiming at even closer and deeper collaboration between institutions than we see today and envisages a policy framework across borders that allows for seamless transnational cooperation.
To make this all a reality and to have a meaningful impact, the reforms must be informed by broad evidence from the whole sector, taking into account the various modes of collaboration and related challenges. The development of the European Education Area should not depend on a select number of voices, rather it should consider all systems as a whole. This is the only way to ensure inclusive, more effective and flexible education systems are at the core of the ambitions set for the European Education Area.
That kind of broad evidence can only be gathered through a structured dialogue with diverse stakeholders. The lesson learnt from the Bologna Process can be useful in this respect. The Process has shown the value of governments and stakeholders, such as university associations representing the sector, working together to identify the key challenges and finding solutions for them. This collaborative approach ensures that different perspectives to the issues at hand are addressed in the preparatory phase and the diversity of both higher education systems and institutions is considered. It also facilitates critical reflection on which measures benefit the sector as a whole and can bring the most value added, when implemented through European collaboration. Further, it contributes to finding solutions that are relevant in the different contexts and ensures that there is a buy-in from the sector. It has to be borne in mind that universities are autonomous to decide how much they want to implement these ideas, and if they are not equal partners in the initiatives that regard them, the ambitions risk not being fulfilled.
For the time being, the Communication does not provide information on how stakeholders, such as higher education institution associations, will be involved in the governance frameworks of the Area. We, the European University Association (EUA), pointed this out in our recently released set of recommendations aimed at providing informed input for the next steps.
Inclusive education systems that serve all learners are rightly one of the key areas of action in the European Education Area. To achieve this, it should address all education providers on an equal footing. This goes for the actions to be taken forward, but also for the support, such as the funding through Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe, which should be accessible to all.
This article was originally published in The Parliament Magazine in November 2020.
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