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EC launches policy dialogue with southern neighbours

The European Commission has launched a platform for higher education policy dialogue with neighbouring countries in the south Mediterranean area.

The commission convened 80 high-level officials including ministers, the commissioner and relevant director-generals in Brussels this week to discuss developments in higher education in North Africa and the near Middle East – and the European response to it.

While global developments align the general gist of higher education agendas around the world, the non-EU Mediterranean countries share some characteristics that set them apart not only from EU countries but also from neighbouring countries towards the east that were the main focus of EU education support during the 1990s.

The most notable are related to demographics, but also higher education attainment and gender equity are very different from most parts of the world.

Egypt has 2.5 million students and expects this figure to grow to three million by 2022. It should double its 100,000 academic staff to get a student-to-staff ratio that is comparable to international standards, but lacks the human resources even today.

At independence, Tunisia had fewer than 700 students. Today it has 350,000, a number which is set to go through the roof in the next few years. Neighbouring Algeria had the same number of students in 1962. It now has 1.3 million and expects to have two million by 2015. The challenges are enormous.

Enrolment in Jordan, where 70% of the population is under the age of 30, has increased by 12% per year in the past 10 years, to which Jordan’s Education Minister Wajih Owais commented: “This would have been considered an achievement once; but now it is a serious threat to quality.”

Such differences between the EU and neighbouring countries call for tailored support and cooperation. What works in the EU may not always work in other countries.

The policy dialogue platform, whose first meeting took place in Brussels on 2-3 July, should help to inform the European Commission of the needs on the ground in North Africa and the Middle East, and to inform the targeted countries of the European response to this.

The meeting was particularly timely in the light of the proposed changes to EU education programmes from 2014. While the outlines of these have been drawn, the details have not and according to Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, input from the meeting will be used in defining some of these details.

“This is not an ordinary conference,” she said. “We want your fair and honest input.”

Above all else, the meeting showed the credit given to European support to higher education in the region.

Tempus in particular was praised, to the extent that many delegates expressed concern over losing the brand when Tempus is absorbed by the newly proposed Erasmus for All umbrella for all European support actions. Erasmus, according to many delegates, is more associated with mobility than with institutional or policy support.

Surprisingly, one of the key issues that kept cropping up in the debates was the need to support more vocational directions in higher education. This is interesting because vocational education and training, while much needed, has a very low status in most countries. To have a group of higher education specialists make this call is quite remarkable.

It was quite generally agreed that professionally oriented higher education deserved further development to counter graduate unemployment. Not just engineers and technicians but also management, business and hospitality specialists are in high demand.

In spite of an explicit appeal from Commissioner Vassiliou, who referred to the sensitive issue of gender equity in the region as “directly discriminatory”, better utilisation of the tremendous human resources potential of the female population remained little discussed at the first meeting in Brussels.

Although women make up more than half of the student population in many countries, their potential is extremely underused in the labour market.

How much work remains to be done in this area could not have been better illustrated than by the composition of the country teams. The only female delegate was the Israeli Tempus director.

To the credit of the commission, the only other female representative from the targeted countries was an Erasmus Mundus alumna, whose excellent tale of the impact of studying in Europe showed the potential of international mobility.

“The hardest thing about an Erasmus Mundus scholarship is getting back to normal life afterwards,” Lebanese student Manal Kahi said.

The policy dialogue platform is scheduled to convene every year or second year.
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