EU education ministers welcome the European Strategy for Universities and have confirmed their support for the four priority areas in the higher education package put forward by the European Commission in January 2022.
At the 5 April meeting of the Education Council, ministers placed greater emphasis on synergies between university missions and related policy processes and highlighted the need to work together at European, national and institutional level to pursue the four key objectives. These are strengthening the European dimension in higher education, research and innovation as well as the synergies between them; boosting Europe’s global role and leadership; bolstering Europe’s recovery and response to the digital and green transitions and, finally, deepening the European sense of belonging based on shared values.
The Education Council adopted recommendations on how to build effective European higher education cooperation, touching on a wide range of topics concerning transnational education. It called on member states to facilitate the introduction of transnational joint programmes and give universities the freedom to experiment with instruments such as flexible learning, digital provision and the use of the digital European Student Card. Ministers insisted on using existing Bologna instruments such as the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes. However, they also urged the European Commission to establish pilots and examine a possible legal statute for university alliances, such as – but not limited to - the European University Initiative, and a joint European degree label. The pilots for both instruments should start later this year.
Ministers also adopted conclusions empowering higher education institutions for the future of Europe in response to the strategy for universities published by the European Commission earlier this year. Among other things, the text calls for better synergies between research and education and creating a roadmap to bring together the ideas from the strategy, the European Research Area and the European Education Area.
The importance of using Bologna tools is emphasised throughout the conclusions. Also, ministers point out that the European University Initiative, while important, represents one possibility among several for university alliances. Nevertheless, they would like to see the initiative further developed based on experiences from the first pilot.
EUA hopes that the emphasis on Bologna tools and instruments can help increase their use in member states as this can help overcome the barriers to transnational collaboration. System-level reforms giving universities greater autonomy remain the sine qua non condition for deeper transnational collaboration in its various forms. Involving stakeholders is the best way of ensuring reforms are fit for purpose. Therefore, EUA welcomes the emphasis put on this point in the Council conclusions. New demands placed on universities must be accompanied by funding and other support such as leadership and staff training.
Addressing the priority of “driving Europe’s global role and leadership”, the conclusions state that “HEIs should be supported through European and national schemes, fully respecting the excellence principle, to welcome students, researchers and academics whose freedom is under threat”. EUA welcomes this affirmation which clearly goes beyond that proposed in the European Commission’s strategy last January. EUA reads this as a clear commitment for a European scheme to support researchers and students at risk, thereby supplementing and enhancing schemes already in place in some EU member states. EUA has been calling for such a scheme since 2016, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made this even more urgent.
In general, both the recommendation and the conclusions show that EU member states wish to keep reforms of the higher education sector within the Bologna structures. However, there is also implicit recognition of the important role of the European Commission in coordinating the work and developing pilot programmes. Thus, while EU member states are not closing the door on the ambitions of the European Commission, they are not giving it a completely free hand either.