Every year, close to four million students in the European Union enter universities and higher education colleges. They are ready to start a new chapter of their lives and hope to acquire the knowledge and skills that will equip them for future careers.
Many arrive with fresh memories of the teachers who inspired them to go on to higher education and the teachers they are about to meet will be just as important for their success.
Yet relatively few countries invest systematically in efforts to improve the quality of university teaching. Instead, university excellence is mostly conceived of in terms of research performance, as confirmed by the growing influence of current university rankings, based in the main only on research output.
Another model is possible and should be promoted. Excellence in university cannot and should not be associated only with excellence in research. Universities fulfil many other, equally important missions in our societies and economies.
High level group on modernisation
With the European Commissions launch of the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education, we are taking the first steps to change this situation and shift the focus towards teaching.
The quality of teaching in higher education institutions is key to unlocking the full potential of students and creating a healthy economy and society. High calibre teachers, and the institutions and systems that support them, clearly impact on these challenges.
The launch of the group is part of a broader strategy to modernise higher education and carry out a comprehensive review of higher education.
In its first two years of work, the group will focus on how to achieve excellence in teaching in higher education and how to adapt learning environments to the digital age. Its starting point is that higher education is ever more crucial in creating and sharing the high-end knowledge and skills Europe needs.
Excellent higher education is a source of competitive economic advantage and, at a time of crisis, a key to sustainable economic recovery.
Higher education is also a major driver of social progress as it trains graduates to respond creatively to challenges. At the same time, competition between universities increases as the quality of higher education improves around the globe.
We all know that highly skilled people are necessary for sustainable economic growth. Today, more and more young people and adults too choose to go into higher education.
This is great news, not just for Europe but for those individual students as it will help them find jobs and remain competitive in an increasingly demanding labour market. The knowledge economy means that the nature of jobs will change dramatically and that graduates will need constantly to update their knowledge and acquire new skills.
If we want to ensure that everyone who can go into higher education does so, and that our universities equip their students with the right skills, we need change we need a change of culture.
We need change in order to attract and retain a substantial proportion of young people in higher education, including those who in the past would not have considered it as an option. We need to tackle early dropout and overlong times to graduate.
Curricula must meet the needs of a diverse student body and provide skills that are sought after by employers. Universities need to use technology effectively and communication innovations to improve access to knowledge.
Keeping pace with change in the world of work means offering education programmes that are relevant, are of high quality and, increasingly, include practical or work experience, as well as working more closely with stakeholders such as employers in course design or delivery.
Universities are already undergoing a radical transformation to provide a much greater variety of courses and to provide them in new and flexible ways. As universities embark on this period of change they and the policy-makers that provide their regulatory framework will need support and advice.
This is what the high level group is here to do. The group brings together distinguished academics and industry representatives, all of whom have in-depth insight into the challenges faced by the education sector today. To help the group in its mission, the members will consult with a broad range of stakeholders including students, of course.
In 2013 the group will publish its first recommendations to policy-makers, universities and colleges on how to embed a culture of excellence in higher education teaching.
The group will examine how excellence can be measured, consider the link between excellent teaching and excellent learning, and also consider how universities and colleges can best encourage the shared creation of knowledge by academic staff and students.
What, for example, should be the role of teacher training in higher education? How can we make best use of new technologies and increasingly open educational resources? Can only institutions get involved or should other stakeholders also play a part in fostering excellence? What can national policy-makers do? And what might be done at the European level?
By examining what different countries and institutions are doing, the high level group will identify some of the pointers for success, spot the gaps that can be filled, and propose innovative approaches for systematically recognising, nurturing and sustaining excellence throughout Europe's colleges and universities so that they perform to the best of their ability across all of their missions.
* Androulla Vassiliou is European commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth and Mary McAleese is former president of Ireland and chair of the High Level Group for the Modernisation of Higher Education, which has been launched this month.
* Click here to listen to a recording of what the commissioner said at the launch of the high level group.
A totally futile idea, since international university rankings are predominantly based on academics' research output, not teaching. And, it is the big grants that get you a promotion, not your student evaluations.
They can set up all the commissions with all the recommendations they want, but unless the whole ranking system is changed in reality (not in politically correct discourse), let's not waste our time on these expensive commissions that produce totally useless recommendations!"
Eva Bernat on University World News Facebook page
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters