Internationalisation ‘could be harmed by global conflicts’

Internationalisation is one of the top priorities for European universities, according to the first Trends report produced by the European University Association, or EUA, for five years.

But the report’s author, EUA’s Senior Adviser Andrée Sursock, warns: “The impressive strides made in international higher education cooperation could be harmed by widespread global conflicts, including those based on religious fundamentalism and resurgent nationalism.”

The new report Trends 2015: Learning and teaching in European universities is the result of responses from 451 universities from 46 countries and presents a vivid picture of how institutions in different countries have faced up to the economic crisis, changing demographic trends and other major challenges across Europe.

Sursock told University World News: “I wrote the latest Trends report between November 2014 and March 2015 when the most memorable events were the Charlie Hebdo attack and the string of catastrophes in the Mediterranean Sea together with the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in so many European countries.”

The new report takes 2010 and the last Trends report as its baseline and recalls the turbulent times universities were going through from 1999 to 2009, with increases in institutional autonomy and new funding methods.

Then the number one priority for European universities was said to be how to embrace the Bologna Process reforms.

Today quality assurance and internationalisation are the biggest issues facing European higher education, according to the findings.

European signals to the outside world

The Trends 2015 report points out that while education is not one of the competences of the European Union, the European Commission provides policy guidance and funding initiatives, such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, which can send important signals particularly to partners outside the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA.

With cuts to staff numbers and salaries being widespread and the balance between core funding and competitive project funding being altered, some countries expect universities to make up shortfalls in public funding with increases from European-funded programmes like Horizon 2020.

“This is doubtful because budget cuts weaken their capacity to attract competitive funding,” warns Sursock.

Demographic problems affecting Southern and Eastern Europe and the sharp rise in youth unemployment (50% in Spain and 60% in Greece) have prompted many governments, the European Commission and the OECD to emphasise the need for closer links with industry.


Globalisation and co-operation with other higher education institutions are rated as ‘highly important’ by over half the universities in the EUA survey, with national and international rankings seen as a sign of growing competition.

Rankings are rated as ‘highly important’ by a third of universities, up by 10% from 2010, with 56% admitting they influence their choice of international partners.

Internationalisation is ‘highly important’ for 69% of respondents, up by 8% on 2010, and is the second most important development after quality assurance.

More universities claim that their primary communities are worldwide, with 93% of respondents saying they either have an international strategy or intend to develop one or make it part of their institutional strategy.

Internationalisation improves learning and teaching, said 92% of respondents, with student mobility cited as "the most important factor contributing to the improvement of learning and teaching".

However, the report notes that international student recruitment has become a frequent strategy to cope with the economic crisis by increasing revenue and diversifying funding sources.

Europe needs an internationalisation strategy

The role of the European Commission was recognised, with 91% of universities saying they would like to see a European Union strategy for internationalisation to promote internationalisation to university leaderships, national bodies and the wider university community.

The report said despite new programmes, such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, it remains to be seen how higher education and research will fare in the priorities of the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Trends report author Andrée Sursock said universities are worried that the impact of widespread global conflicts, including those based on religious fundamentalism and resurgent nationalism, could harm the impressive strides that have been made in international higher education cooperation.

Her report also highlighted that 5% of respondents said internationalisation had a negative effect by increasing bureaucracy, the workload for administrative and academic staff and put additional pressure on student services. The challenge of teaching in English and the danger of brain drain were also cited as negatives.

Geographical targets

The survey queried universities about their top three geographical targets. The EU is the geographical target for 73% of European universities, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • • Asia, at 48%, is gaining in importance while Latin America is maintaining its importance at 19%.
  • • Other areas such as non-EU Eastern Europe and North America are losing ground.
  • • Interest in the EU is the lowest in Ireland and Great Britain, with only 29% of Irish institutions and 33% in the UK saying it is one of their top three priority areas.
  • • Interest in European countries beyond the EU is strongest in Austria and from Central and Eastern European institutions. It was low to non-existent in other countries.
  • • Student exchanges, at 96%, and staff exchanges, at 92%, are the main international activity for institutions, with offshore campuses trailing at just 13%.
  • • Universities in Ireland, Lithuania and Russia were the most likely to say they wanted to develop offshore campuses from scratch in the future.

European Higher Education Area

Despite universities in different countries becoming more varied as they address challenges, no university was negative about the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, but the report stresses that it needs to be nurtured and that policy-making should address institutional priorities.

The biggest value of the EHEA was promoting transparency and comparability between degrees across education sectors, noted by 87% of UK institutions, 83% in Italy and 71% of Irish universities.

But there is confusion in some countries over the national qualification frameworks, or NQFs, a key Bologna reform that supports such comparability.

Quality assurance was cited as ‘highly important’ by 100% of Lithuanian institutions and by 93% in Portugal.

Despite coordination efforts by the European Commission, national policy reforms are very dynamic and divergent, said the report, with some countries ‘reforming’ their reforms.

Tuition fees are ‘highly important’ to 34% of universities across Europe, and to 100% of those in Ireland and the UK.

In Ireland and Sweden this is linked to the introduction of fees for non-EU students, which other countries have floated with and then dropped in the face of opposition. In Germany and Austria general tuition fees for domestic and European students have been discontinued.

The report says one aspect shared by European countries is that budget cuts and funding reforms are likely to curtail the capacity of institutions to chart their own course at a time when it is critical for them to do so.

Teaching excellence initiatives

The lack of agreement on how to measure teaching quality was one of the major issues highlighted in the report, with only a small number of teaching excellence initiatives underway in Europe.

“More needs to be done to clarify what teaching excellence is all about in the first place,” Sursock told University World News.

"If lack of agreement on how to measure teaching quality persists, this will preserve the pre-eminence of research as the determinant of quality in higher education,” she said. Despite the continued prestige of research, 59% of respondents said there was growing recognition of the importance of teaching, with British, Dutch and Danish institutions all putting this over 80% in terms of importance.

Student feedback questionnaires are the usual way to evaluate teaching performance across the continent, with 93% using this approach. The report, however, warned that there were dangers in an over-reliance on the student questionnaire as the sole method of evaluating teaching performance.

Changing student population

A proportion of 67% of Trends respondents – mostly public universities – had seen student populations grow over the past five years, with 42% saying this had been by more than 100%, and 39% expected to continue growing.

However, 14% predicted a decrease in student numbers. Those anticipating a decline were mostly in the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Poland.

A recent phenomenon in Poland and other post-communist European countries is the shift from privatisation to de-privatisation, or ‘re-publicisation’. “The private system expansion that started in 1989 in many countries is coming to an end,” said Sursock.

Institutions expecting to grow included those in Belgium, Turkey and Switzerland. International student recruitment had increased for 69% of institutions – with EU students up by 64%. Ireland, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland and Austria reported the biggest percentage increases in non-EU students.

Other notable changes:
  • • Students with disabilities were up in 36% of institutions.
  • • Part-time students were up in 31% institutions, but down in 24%.
  • • Mature students increased for 29%, while they were down for 12% of those surveyed.
  • • More students are seeking professional studies, with this being particularly noticeable in the Russian Federation, Norway, Turkey and France.
ICT ‘highly important’

Information and communication technology, or ICT, was considered ‘highly important’ for 62% of respondents, including 100% in Ukraine and 81% in Turkey.

E-learning was seen as most important for increasing flexibility and learning opportunities with MOOCs receiving the highest number of ‘Not yet, but we are planning to offer’ answers. Just under 30% of institutions said they plan to develop MOOCs as part of their international strategies.

The future is student centred learning

The 2010 Trends report concluded that much had been done to implement the Bologna Process reforms.

Now, the focus is to move towards ensuring student centred learning and creating an effective learning environment, said the 2015 report.

Some countries had rushed the Bologna reforms through via ministerial dictates, which were often disconnected with the ideals such as learning outcomes and qualification frameworks.

The next stage was to consolidate the change process and ensure that student centred learning deepened understanding and critical thinking rather than just the transfer of knowledge.

To download the Trends 2015 report click here.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.