Time for blue skies thinking about the future of higher education in Europe

Making space and time for blue skies thinking is a research dilemma of our times. Funders are typically interested in short-term results. Will it be the same for higher education when ministers from 47 European countries meet in Bucharest on 26-27 April for the 2012 Bologna ministerial conference?

There will also be stakeholders and the Europe Commission, flanked by representatives of 50 or more countries outside Europe and 30 international organisations, which will be having their say in the accompanying Bologna Policy Forum.

The fiscal crisis, with its fall-out for European economies, makes the blue skies issue more relevant. The most common governmental reaction is that cuts must be imposed.

But if higher education is a necessary bridge between education, understanding and advancing knowledge, and if the experience of higher education helps society as a whole adjust to major social change as well as benefiting individuals, are there not alternatives?

A workshop at the London School of Economics and Political Science last month, organised by its European Institute and the Jean Monnet Centre, was convened to discuss the evidence from a multi-disciplinary perspective that closer European integration might be a solution for the higher education sector.

The workshop brought together academics with an interest in the macro, the long-term and the fundamental questions about a democratic society, with three academics who are closely involved in research on the Bologna process and EU higher education policy, and three significant public policy actors.

The theme that surfaced – without any pre-coordination – was that of winners and losers in the ‘Europeanising’ process, and that these were issues to tackle before discussing institutional change.

Winners and losers on a global scale: Bologna has been a European success story as viewed from overseas. But as regional blocs and China create coordinated systems of higher education as a way to achieve greater competitiveness, the Western variety of capitalism looks set to lose out.

Winners and losers in terms of regulation: Bologna’s initial success was to get coordination via soft regulation. But developments in global science, which are increasingly person-to-person, and in the regulatory industry itself, tiring of regulating all risk, call for a shift to a more pragmatic ‘what works?' approach.

Winners and losers in the research community: Bologna’s success in supporting Europe-wide doctoral education has not helped many of the national participants. The recipients of prestigious European Research Council grants, regardless of nationality, are flocking to the known institutions in the UK, France and Germany.

Winners and losers among individuals: Bologna’s work on promoting fairer access has not been enough. It has not put across the notion that expansion does not make access fairer without rigorous policies of equalisation. In addition, there are costs in social integration piling up.

Those with a closer focus themselves had diverse views. Legal studies have caught up with the European Commission line that Bologna is ‘joyriding’ on the back of EU law to argue that, in the name of democratic values, there should be a more legally embedded form of cooperation, with perhaps a Bologna Directive.

The political science case made is that Bologna’s value, which could be much better exploited, lies in its role as a protector of academic values and a base for negotiation, development and more informed public debate within the existing democratic framework of intensive coordination.

The 2008 European University Association study Financially Sustainable Universities showing different national approaches to cuts, bears that out.

Of the public figures involved, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, who was a signatory to the Sorbonne Declaration that set the Bologna process in motion, recalled why and how the declaration tried to advance university reform.

Baroness Lola Young, who chaired a recent House of Lords inquiry on EU plans for higher education modernisation, showed a refreshingly independent line towards the EU compared with past UK committees, where suspicion had been the watchword.

Her report looks to the EU for ‘pragmatic help’ for higher education – for example, with regard to mobility grants and loans.

Peter van der Hijden, a policy officer in the commission’s directorate general for research, responded to the general debate.

In summary: there is blue-ish skies research evidence, which needs airing on some crucial Bologna questions. There is a public policy interest to generate. A website will host the workshop papers and provide space to extend the debate.

* Anne Corbett is a visiting fellow in the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Sacha Garben is a fellow at LSE. The academic participants in the LSE workshop, aside from Corbett and Garben, were: Avril Keating (Oxford), Roger King (Bath and LSE), Paola Mattei (Oxford), Susan Robertson (Bristol) and Pedro Texeira (Porto). For further information contact: or