EUROPE: New continental higher education strategy

The European Union's 4,000 universities and other tertiary institutions are not doing enough to help create jobs and economic growth, and their ability to contribute to prosperity remains underexploited, the European Commission says in its new higher education strategy.

Higher education has become a top budget item for European countries in recent years: student numbers have soared to 19 million and many European research achievements have led the world. But this may not be good enough any more.

A communication from the European Commission outlining its strategy for higher education, "Supporting Growth and Jobs: An agenda for the modernisation of Europe's higher education systems", looks at the problem and sets out many worthy objectives.

But behind it lies an unsettling admission: "Higher education is not performing well enough to provide Europe with enough people with the right kinds of skills to create jobs and growth. And worldwide, Europe's competitors, especially the emerging economies, are rapidly increasing their investment in higher education," the EC says.

The policy paper, presented by Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, identifies a number of priorities for reforms required in member countries to achieve shared European objectives. These are:

* Increase and diversify the number of graduates.
* Improve the quality and relevance of higher education.
* Provide more study opportunities for students, especially across borders.
* Train more researchers.
* Strengthen links between education, research and business.
* Ensure that funding is efficient.

Vassiliou said that higher education was a powerful driver of economic growth and the best insurance against unemployment.

"Even so, too many graduates struggle to find jobs or quality work. We need to reform higher education - and vocational education - so that we equip our young people with the skills they need to reach their potential in terms of development and employability," she said.

The strategy also sets out how Europe can support reform in member countries.

European Union-level initiatives will include a multi-dimensional university ranking which will better inform students about the courses that are best for them and an Erasmus for Masters loan guarantee scheme for students taking a full degree course abroad.

A Skills Panorama will be set up to improve intelligence on current and future skills needed. And the EC will work with member states and stakeholders to analyse the impact of different funding approaches on higher education.

It is also proposing a quality framework for traineeships to help students and graduates gain relevant experience and obtain better quality placements. And it is seeking to improve recognition of studies abroad and strengthen data on graduate employment and learning mobility.

Earlier this summer the commission proposed "substantial increases" for education, training and youth (up 73%) and for research (up 46%) for the next multi-annual EU budget running from 2014 to 2020.

It noted that the number and variety of higher education institutions had substantially increased in recent years, but that "funding, governance structures and curricula have often failed to keep pace".

Under the Europe 2020 strategy, there is a higher education target of ensuring that 40% of young Europeans (30 to 34-year-olds) achieve a higher education qualification by the end of the decade, compared with 33.6% in 2010.

Many in academia, while welcoming the general direction and vigour of the commission's thinking, stress the need to hold to traditional aims at the same time.

Lesley Wilson, Secretary General of the European Universities Association (EUA), told University World News that the modernisation agenda was welcome "because the first modernisation agenda [in 2006] had a really big impact in looking at the core issues of helping to improve the development and performance of universities".

She said: "Our view is that while we fully understand the focus on employability and growth in jobs - and of course we are all in favour of that - we still feel there's quite a lot to be done on the core issue of the modernisation agenda, because it's basically the extent to which universities are addressing their core issues of teaching and learning and research, and having the autonomy and funding to do this."

Wilson said the EUA would have liked to have seen a more ambitious European agenda, whereas many of the issues set out in the European Commission paper are either for national systems or for institutions.

This was why the EUA had referred to the need for professionalisation and leadership training for universities that were going through all these changes.

In its detailed response to the Brussels paper the EUA said that while it supported skills' enhancement as a means of promoting graduate employability, it also wanted to underline that the further modernisation of Europe's higher education systems depends on "strong universities, and other higher education institutions, able to pursue their core missions of knowledge development, transmission and dissemination as well as playing their central role in the innovation chain".

It said that many points were "pan-European issues" and while member states had the major role to play, "EU-level actions should not be limited to supporting longstanding activities focused on improving transparency, mobility and international exchange and cooperation".

The EC says 35% of all jobs in member countries will require high-level qualifications by 2020, but only 26% of the workforce currently has such a qualification.

It advocates continually updating education programmes, so that graduates have the types of knowledge and skills they will need to succeed, and have the flexibility to adapt to a changing labour market.

"Higher education must be more closely aligned to the needs of the labour market, and more open to cooperation with business, including in the design of curricula, improving governance and injecting additional funding," the EC says.

"Higher education should also contribute to making the knowledge economy work better in Europe: creating effective links between education, research and business to produce innovation; and maximising the contribution of higher education to regional regeneration, including through community funds."