Joint degrees – A hallmark for academic cooperation

International cooperation between higher education institutions within the European Union started with the exchange of students on the basis of bilateral agreements. Since 1987, the EU has been instrumental in developing this form of cooperation through mobility.

The Erasmus programme has played a fundamental role, and has allowed three million people to benefit from a mobility experience within Europe over the past 25 years. Erasmus has changed the lives of all who participated in it and has also changed the way higher education institutions relate to and cooperate with each other.

The widespread use of learning outcomes, transferability of credits – in particular through the European Credit Transfer System, or ECTS, and the diploma supplement – and the use of EU-wide transparency and recognition tools have contributed to better understanding and mutual trust between institutions across Europe.

The programme’s success has also had an impact beyond students and institutions. It helped to shape a new European higher education landscape and led to the launch of the Bologna process and many of its distinctive features, including comparable and compatible study programmes.

Joint programmes

The development of individual credit mobility led to innovative types of partnership, requiring more structured cooperation between higher education institutions. From the late 1990s institutions, particularly those in Europe, went one step further in terms of collaboration – joint programmes.

The Prague Bologna Ministerial Conference conclusions of 2001 included a call for more modules, courses and curricula offered in partnership with higher education institutions from other countries.

While the exact definition is open to debate, a programme is joint when offered by two or more institutions in different countries with a jointly developed curriculum, and a clear agreement on credit recognition. Within this framework, there are different levels of integration.

One particularly integrated example was introduced in 2004 by a European programme, Erasmus Mundus. In this programme, consortia bringing together at least three institutions have to develop a joint curriculum and joint student application, selection, admission and examination criteria.

They must offer students a recognised mobility period in at least two of the higher education institutions involved in the course and guarantee the delivery of a joint, double or multiple degree to all successful students.

Joint degrees brought to life the principles promoted through the Bologna process – increased mobility, comparable degree structures and quality assurance procedures. Those joint degrees have to be of outstanding quality to attract the best students to Europe.

Some difficulties

Higher education institutions deciding to embark upon this new form of cooperation face difficulties stemming from institutional regulations such as grading systems, examination regulations and enrolment procedures, as well as national legislation – particularly related to the delivery of joint degrees but also the costs this type of close cooperation involve.

Mutual trust between institutions, or between the people more directly involved in the coordination of the programmes, is key to overcoming these barriers.

This type of cooperation works best when the institutions involved have clear international strategies – strategies that acknowledge the important role that joint programmes can play within the institution, and which build flexibility in programme management, allowing for smoother implementation.

These strategies have lead to a steady increase in the number of countries and institutions, including outside the EU, participating in joint programmes, as the latest Bologna implementation reports show.

In its recent communication on “European Higher Education in the World”, the European Commission called on member states and higher education institutions to tackle remaining obstacles to the development and implementation of joint degrees.

Benefits for institutions, students, systems

Higher education institutions reap clear benefits from joint degree programmes. The result of two or more institutions joining forces to offer a joint degree results in higher academic standards than the institutions would achieve separately.

Offering joint programmes also raises an institution’s international profile, allows the development of international ‘niches’, stimulates international collaboration in teaching, and enhances an institution’s ability to adapt swiftly to emerging needs.

Through these programmes, higher education institutions offer their students excellent courses with embedded, structured mobility, which allow the mobile participants to develop new types of transversal skills that are particularly appreciated by employers.

Joint degree programmes also contribute to increasing transparency between educational systems and have catalysed changes in national legislation regarding the awarding of joint degrees.

The EU contribution

Since 2004, the European Union has funded 138 Erasmus Mundus joint masters courses and 43 joint doctoral programmes involving almost 700 higher education institutions and more than 16,000 students, doctoral candidates and scholars.

In spite of some instances of difficulties with recognition of joint and double degrees, independent evaluations have concluded that these joint degrees have had a considerable added value for programme alumni when searching for future employment.

International experience, language and intercultural competence are regarded as important assets that distinguish Erasmus Mundus participants from other graduates.

Thanks to Erasmus Mundus, Europe offers participants the chance to study or research in different countries, systems and cultures and obtain a recognised degree at the end of the education and training process, which contributes to the worldwide attractiveness of Europe as a first class study and research destination.

Higher education institutions have also benefited from their participation in Erasmus Mundus joint degrees.

Beyond their increased capacity to establish cooperation in research, the programme helped institutions to develop student-centred cooperation with joint teaching and supervision, which brings scholars together and results in complementary activities and opportunities for participants to create networks at the beginning of their careers.

The cooperation of those participating in joint degrees modified their attitude towards the Bologna process and some of its main elements, such as the application of the credit system, mutual recognition, promotion of mobility and, most importantly, European cooperation in quality assurance.

It has contributed to the adaptation of national legislation, particularly in the area of the recognition of joint degrees in participant countries.

Finally, it has had a positive effect on the recognition of the Bologna process beyond the EU by contributing significantly to the adoption of a common credit and mobility recognition system and of joint quality assurance mechanisms, notably in the European neighbourhood countries.

In the face of the importance of the joint degrees, thanks to the Erasmus+ programme around 34,000 students will benefit from EU funding to participate in these joint programmes from 2014-20.

* Jordi Curell is director for higher education and international affairs at the European Commission.