Plan can boost international collaboration, provided member states engage, say Thomas Jørgensen and Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik.
On 18 January, the European Commission launched a new policy strategy for universities in Europe, along with a proposal to member states, technically known as a ‘Council recommendation’, to deepen transnational higher education cooperation in Europe.
The package is welcome. Besides the potpourri of initiatives, the strategy’s main value lies in helping to shape the discourse about universities at the policy level, giving direction and momentum to transnational collaboration. The EU’s powers in education are limited to supporting measures, while on the research side the Commission has been reluctant to propose legislation, knowing that member states have little appetite for such an intervention.
Even so, there are potentially real changes in the strategy’s suggestions. One such is the proposal for a European legal statute for transnational university alliances. The Commission sees this as a way of allowing alliances to make common strategic decisions, act as a single legal entity, and facilitate pooling of resources and data, staff exchanges and awarding of joint degrees.
The question is whether member states will accept it. More importantly, it is unclear whether such a move would solve the issues affecting international cooperation by universities. Some alliances have already set up legal entities in one of their national systems.
The added value of a European statute would also depend on its scope and the level of integration the institutions in an alliance are aiming for. Some models of a European statute already exist, although not specifically for universities, and the Commission will be exploring how they work.
The other proposed instrument in the strategy likely to cause debate is European degrees. Here, the Commission proposes to go step by step, beginning with an additional EU label for joint degrees accredited in a national system.
Europe already has a framework for such degrees, the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes. This was approved in 2015 by the Bologna Process for coordinating higher-education policy, although implementation remains fragmented. The purpose and criteria of any EU label would need to be worked out between the Commission, member states and universities.
Here again, views between countries may differ. In some, students and employers will welcome a European label; in others, they may prefer national degrees that come with trusted notions of quality and content.
A third highlight is the expansion of the European Universities Initiative, which funds groups of universities to work closer together and could grow to 60 alliances covering more than 500 higher education institutions. Many universities are enthusiastic about participating in deeper forms of transnational collaboration.
The key question is whether member states will provide the support, in funding and in system-level reforms, needed to meet the expectations this expansion will create. As the Commission rightly says, EU money cannot and should not replace national investments in universities.
The strategy is stronger on university education than on research. Much of what is presented concerns initiatives already set out in European Research Area documents.
Glass half full or half empty?
Looking at the glass half full, no one wants a whole new strategy or set of initiatives before the present push for a renewed ERA is implemented. Looking at the glass half empty, the research component could have been stronger and more detailed, particularly regarding the contribution of universities to the ERA. It is disappointing that open science is not mentioned as a priority for universities.
As well as addressing issues specific to universities, the strategy links in to the Commission’s overarching priorities on the green and digital transitions. While these topics have been high on universities’ agendas for some time, the strategy says interesting things about the digitalisation of universities. These include turning the European Student Card into a unique digital ID for students, along with ambitions to create standards for open data sharing and mutual access to services between universities.
Finally, one of the strategy’s biggest positives is its tone. In the past, the Commission has presented its university policies as “modernisation” agendas, focusing on how universities must change. In contrast, the new communication recognises how universities strive to contribute to society and focuses on the framework conditions that help or hinder this ambition.
This shift is very welcome—especially if it translates into systematic national reforms.
This article was first published by Research Professional on 27 January 2022.
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