Learning and teaching: the added value of international peer exchange

EUA recently conducted an internal study mapping the impact of its learning and teaching activities. This article offers insights into the findings and how they might be useful to institutional, national and international actors in higher education.

EUA has recently concluded an internal study mapping the impact of its learning and teaching activities on participating institutions and European-level policy developments. The aim was to assess the impact of the activities taking into account their full lifespan, which started in late 2016. Another crucial aim of this study was to enable the EUA Learning & Teaching Steering Committee, which provides guidance on EUA’s activities in the field, to have an informed discussion about the activities’ future direction.

The study attests to the broader benefits of peer learning and exchange for institutional development and the fostering of an international community of practice, which is a valuable lesson for institutions and university associations alike. These insights were largely gained from 58 survey responses received from members of the 15 EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Groups active between 2017 and 2020. A second study element yielding crucial insights were two online focus groups conducted after the conclusion of the survey with 28 respondents. Hence, the focus below will be on selected results from these two study components.

One central objective of the learning and teaching activities is to provide EUA members with opportunities for peer learning and exchange of good practice. Accordingly, the survey enquired about any follow-up action taken at the institutional level in response to the members’ involvement in the groups; the perceived usefulness of the reports produced by other groups, and continued contacts between individual group members. The survey responses point to a multitude of follow-up actions at the institutional level that had at least partially been inspired by the experience of working in a Thematic Peer Group. For example, 67% of survey respondents confirmed that their institutions had adopted recommendations or ideas developed by their groups, such as introducing specific training offers for teachers or a mission statement on learning and teaching. Moreover, 78% of survey respondents also found the reports of other groups useful, while some noted that these reports had also provided tangible new ideas and inspiration, for example for institutional plans or revision processes.

Keeping in mind that the facilitation of international peer learning and exchange is a central objective of the learning and teaching activities, one of the most positive findings of the study was the confirmation that many group members stay in touch: 62% of survey respondents reported to have remained in contact with peers from their own or another group. In addition, 44% of those respondents who reported continued contacts stated that these had led to tangible outcomes, such as joint projects, papers, benchmarking initiatives and even one European University Alliance.

Responses from participants of the two focus groups further suggest that the Thematic Peer Groups help establish an international community of practice in learning and teaching. When asked whether their involvement in a Thematic Peer Group had increased the participants’ level of connectedness at the international level or just influenced with whom they connect, many participants confirmed that this experience had indeed helped them to widen their international network. This was particularly the case with participants who otherwise tend to engage in a national context. Other participants also highlighted that their group involvement had helped them to network on either a more diverse range of topics or in more depth on specific topics. The participants generally agreed that another benefit of the EUA learning and teaching activities was that they provide insights into issues of concern and developments happening at the international level, which some institutions use as a compass.

What can be concluded from these results? For one, it is a clear call for EUA to keep working on learning and teaching. More importantly, however, the results show that international peer learning and exchange are not mere catchwords. Instead, they are essential drivers for achieving innovation and reform. This has been suggested in other contexts, such as the EUA survey report “Digitally enhanced learning and teaching in European higher education institutions,” according to which international exchange and cooperation is a main driver for enhanced learning and teaching (p. 47), in this case through digital means.

The study findings also point to the need for enhanced efforts to establish platforms and opportunities – online or in-person – for international, multilateral cooperation and peer exchange on key issues in learning and teaching. Recent years have shown a trend of increasing interest in learning and teaching in individual higher education institutions, but also on the side of regional and national associations (for example, the Irish National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education), as well as internationally (as evidenced by the latest EHEA Ministerial Communiqués and the establishment of the Bologna Follow-Up Group’s Advisory Group on Learning and Teaching).

This interest will hardly abate any time soon. Even though many institutions may have postponed planned investments and reforms in learning and teaching since their attention has been forcefully shifted to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the large-scale switch to online teaching has also provided an impetus to think about suitable teaching infrastructure and methods that is hard to ignore.

A final lesson to be learnt from this study is that the benefits of a peer-based methodology should not be underestimated. Countless reports, manuals and papers on how to affect change in higher education highlight the need for a sound balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches – for a good reason. But add to that a peer element and the results might just surprise you.

“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.

Helene Peterbauer

Helene Peterbauer is a Policy Analyst in the EUA Institutional Development Unit where she focuses on learning and teaching, as well as academic recognition. Prior to joining EUA, she was a pre-doc assistant and lecturer at the University of Vienna.


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