The European Strategy for Universities proposes steps towards European degrees, a European legal statute for university alliances and foresees the expansion of the European Universities Initiative. Beyond the practicalities, this piece explores the goals behind the proposals and discusses their potential for advancing reform discussions to overcome barriers towards transnational collaboration.
In the European Strategy for Universities launched in January 2022, the European Commission proposes steps towards European degrees, a European legal statute for university alliances and the expansion of the European Universities Initiative to 60 alliances involving more than 500 higher education institutions. Several questions regarding some of the instruments remain open, while the Commission plans to pilot them this year. Discussions are already under way about the technical feasibility of these proposals, what they would mean for universities in practice, and whether they can actually help to overcome some of the barriers that institutions still face in collaborating across borders.
Before looking at the practicalities, it is important to ask what the goal of all these endeavours is, and what it should be. Is the ultimate aim to create federal institutions with a European legal statute that allows them, for instance, to apply for EU funding as one legal entity, to pool their resources, to jointly recruit staff and students and to award European degrees accredited at European level?
For the moment this is not yet entirely clear, and the reality is likely to be more complex. What seems evident from the Commission’s proposals is that European degrees – at least initially – would do nothing more than facilitate joint degrees as we already know them, accredited at national level by one system and recognised by others, with an EU label added. This also seems to be the only way this would be possible within the boundaries of the EU treaties and competences.
While an EU label could be of interest to universities, students and employers for making a degree recognisable as European, the criteria for awarding such a label would need to be carefully defined. It will be important not to add a layer of complexity to the already challenging endeavour of developing, accrediting, implementing and delivering joint degrees as we have known them up to now (without the proposed new EU label). Defining the content of curricula is very much at the core of universities’ academic autonomy. It is important that this is not limited through the backdoor if an EU label comes with further strings attached, even if institutions and alliances are – and must remain – free to choose whether they wish to apply for such a label. Even more important would be that the discussion on a European degree functions as a catalyst for the implementation of reforms and existing tools such as the European Approach to Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes.
Similarly, the scope of a European legal statute for university alliances will need to be defined in a flexible, adaptable way as the alliances and institutions involved are likely to have different challenges and needs depending on the nature, format and depth of collaboration and the differences in the regulatory systems of the countries involved. All this points again to the question: What level of integration do we want and need, at both policy and institutional level?
These are not technical questions, but political ones, and they need to be discussed with member states as well as universities around the table. Therefore, it is helpful that the Commission has now put concrete proposals on the table to kick-start these discussions, informed by evidence that still has to be delivered during the pilot phase. The answers are likely to be as diverse as the universities’ profiles and forms of collaboration, and the partners and people involved.
Therefore, as is often the case in Europe, what we will need are flexible instruments and not a one-size-fits-all approach. A European legal statute may help some transnational collaborations to work more effectively and also to apply collectively for funding, while others may be fine with national solutions (as a few alliances have already created legal entities under national law), or may decide not to create a specific new legal entity for their collaboration as they might not see the added value.
In any case, the adoption of a European legal statute should never become obligatory, for instance to receive funding. The European degree might be attractive for some institutions, but it should not add complexity, nor be seen as a replacement for system-level reforms at national and regional level and adaptations at institutional level. Such reforms and adaptations are needed in any case to deepen transnational collaboration, and they should benefit the different types of collaboration and make systems more flexible generally, rather than creating exceptions for only a few. Further integration in this case should arguably not be a goal in itself, but a means to enhance cooperation and ultimately further the missions of universities in the service of society.
Expanding the European University Initiative to 60 alliances is ambitious, as it needs to go hand-in-hand with reforms and funding. However, according to the Commission’s own estimations, this would correspond to about 10% of higher education institutions in Europe, meaning that the vast majority will operate and continue to collaborate – including transnationally – outside this framework and also beyond the EU. In Europe, we need a university system with regulatory and funding frameworks that are adequate for all institutions for the benefit of society, and it must allow for different levels of integration, with the academic purpose always in focus.
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