EUROPE: New higher education directorate

Is the European Commission going to give higher education a much higher profile? The creation of a new Brussels directorate devoted entirely to higher education has been welcomed by universities in the European Union, but they could be reading too much into the move.

The commission itself is downplaying the step, calling it an "administrative decision" which merely "confirms the importance already given to higher education".

Thomas Pritzkow, information and communication officer for education and culture at the commission, put the decision in the context of "our work with the member states on the agenda for modernising higher education, within the Bologna process, in programmes such as Erasmus and Erasmus Mundus, in the creation of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and the importance which a policy strategy such as Europe 2020 gives to higher education".

Pritzkow said the decision equally reflected the incorporation of the Marie Curie programme, with its close links to the EU policy agenda for universities, into the education and culture directorate-general.

While all this is good news for the European higher education sector, it hardly amounts to the radical step up in its status that some had been looking for.

Essentially the commission has decided to create a new directorate C under the title Lifelong Learning: Higher Education and International Affairs. This will be largely composed of units currently spread over directorates A and B and will include higher education institutions, Erasmus, the European Institute of Technology, the People Programme, Marie Curie and international cooperation.

The changes follow the appointment of Jan Truszczyński as Director General in May. Truszczyński, a Pole, is a former secretary of state in the Polish ministry of foreign affairs and was Poland's chief negotiator during its EU accession negotiations.

Dr Bernd Waechter, Director of the Academic Cooperation Association, said the Brussels move "can be viewed in two ways".

"It could be an administrative reshuffle, which makes sense as a practical measure - there is now a bit more higher education in the DG because they inherited part of the Marie Curie programme from the research directorate," said Waechter.

The other way to see it - and the way the higher education community prefers - "is to say that it's a recognition that higher education is after all a very important sector for the commission, perhaps more so than in the past, when adult education, training and higher education were more or less of equal value", said Waechter.

"It's difficult to read," he said, "but we welcome it of course because one now has, in Kissinger's words, a telephone number to call."

The European University Association said it was pleased with the decision and looked forward to working with the commission on key issues for universities.

EUA Secretary General Lesley Wilson said the association hoped the new organisational structure would mean "more focus on higher education and its contribution to building Europe and more involvement of the key stakeholders".

This was crucial to ensure success in the streamlining and organisation of the different commission funding programmes in this area, and also on the implementation of the recent EU Council conclusions on the internationalisation of higher education, Wilson said.