European Commission presents higher education package: coherent narrative, new momentum
On 18 January 2022, the European Commission launched a new higher education package, including a European Strategy for Universities and a Commission proposal for a Council recommendation on transnational higher education cooperation.
EUA welcomes both documents as an important step forward in connecting the university-related elements of the European Education Area and the European Research Area, building on the European Higher Education Area. Fostering synergies between university missions and supporting institutions through policies and programmes is crucial in enabling universities to fulfil their role in society, as outlined in EUA’s “Universities without walls – A vision for 2030”.
With the package, the Commission presents a coherent and positive narrative for universities, linking their development to the key societal challenges ahead. EUA is pleased to see that the Commission recognises the contributions of universities and seeks to promote the improvement of framework conditions to support them in achieving their aspirations. The package places considerable focus on supporting transnational cooperation, where EU-level action has significant added value. At the same time, it links this to the societal context of democratic decline, inequality and diversity, as well as the green and digital transitions and geopolitical changes. The package includes a set of initiatives. Many had already been announced in the European Education and European Research Area Communications (EEA and ERA), but the strategy now links the university related elements, which should help in guiding EU-level policy cooperation for the years to come. The four flagship initiatives, the scaling-up of the European Universities Initiative to 60 alliances with up to 500 institutions in total, the pathway towards European degrees, the exploration of a legal statute for university alliances and the roll-out of the European Student Card, are leaning more towards the education dimension. The links made with research and innovation are welcome and could have been even stronger, notably the push for a reform of academic careers and assessment towards parity of esteem of university missions and mainstreaming of Open Science.
Regarding implementation, it will be important that the different European levels – the EU with the EEA and the ERA, as well as the Bologna Process – the national and regional levels, universities and other stakeholders continue to work together. Only such collaboration through transparent structures and processes systematically involving key stakeholders will ensure the adequate level of coherence and the fitness for purpose of concrete instruments, such as joint European degrees or a legal statute for transnational university alliances. In this context, there are still questions of “why?” and “how?” for several initiatives and answering these will be a main task in the near future. Further implementation of already existing Bologna Process tools and instruments and system-level reforms at the national level remain crucial.
Furthermore, synergies and better alignment of funding programmes at the EU and national levels will be important and in this regard EUA welcomes that the Commission encourages member states to prioritise investments in universities under the national plans for the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility. In the package, the Commission also proposes various tools for monitoring implementation such as a Higher Education Observatory and a Higher Education Scoreboard. While EUA shares the concern for adequate monitoring and evidence, related tools and indicators need to be developed in consultation with stakeholders and they need to take into account existing instruments, including those developed by the sector itself – such as EUA’s University Autonomy Scorecard, Public Funding Observatory, Open Access surveys and Trends surveys.
Reforms, funding and adequate monitoring are important in enabling transnational collaboration and, more generally, in improving the framework conditions for universities to fulfil their missions in service of society, achieving the sector’s vision of open, engaged and autonomous institutions as we head towards 2030.
The Commission’s launch of the higher education package will be followed by a discussion among the education ministers of the EU member states on 25 January. A formal reaction by the EU Council under the French Presidency is expected for April.
On 27 January, EUA is organising an online event on the topic, “The European Strategy for Universities and system level reforms: Quo vadis?”. The aim is to foster exchange among European, national and institutional-level representatives as we move forward. Registrations remain open until the day of the event.