Towards a vision for the European Higher Education Area

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has been the main framework for higher education reform in Europe over the past two decades and remains so today. While there is still much to be done, the latest Bologna Process Implementation Report shows that the EHEA is largely a success and has changed the face of higher education in Europe.

The EHEA has, however, not been successful in articulating a vision, an underlying rationale for Europe-wide higher education reforms. The upcoming EHEA Ministerial Conference in Rome, which has been moved to 18-20 November because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a chance to set the record straight.

It is particularly important to seize the opportunity now as the Rome conference will set the priorities for the third decade of the Bologna Process and the second decade of the EHEA.

A simple vision with ramifications

I suggest a seemingly simple vision: the EHEA should be an area within which students, staff and graduates are able to move freely for the purposes of study and work.

The vision is only seemingly simple. We cannot move freely for study and work if qualifications are not recognised. We cannot study and work freely in countries or institutions where academic freedom, institutional autonomy and other fundamental values are not respected. We cannot study freely unless higher education is socially inclusive and unless it makes good use of the opportunities offered by technological developments while avoiding the pitfalls.

And we cannot work freely on the basis of higher education qualifications unless overall government labour market policy makes this possible. And all measures will ultimately be meaningless if higher education does not help make our world sustainable.

Speaking of mobility at a time when many countries are locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic may seem cruelly ironic, but it also expresses the hope that whatever ‘new normal’ follows the epidemic will not be one of closed borders and closed minds.

Structural reforms

Structural reforms, which have been a strong point of the EHEA, must continue and implementation must improve.

Academic and work-related mobility will be neither real nor meaningful if students and graduates cannot obtain fair recognition of their qualifications, so the implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, the development and self-certification of national qualifications frameworks and quality assurance in accordance with the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) will remain essential.

We need to devise new policies to meet new challenges, such as providing refugees with an opportunity to have their qualifications recognised, even when these cannot be fully documented.

The European Qualification Passport for Refugees as well as the recommendation adopted by the Lisbon Recognition Convention Committee are good examples of policy and practice adapted to new circumstances, and the COVID-19 pandemic makes using the medical competences some refugees have from their home countries especially important.

Fundamental values

Obstacles to the free movement of persons and ideas are not only practical, however. They are also ideological and political. The fundamental values of the EHEA were long taken for granted but are now dealt with more explicitly because they are under greater threat than at any time since the launch of the Bologna Process.

The 2018 Paris Communiqué recognises the threat to these values and defines them as academic freedom and integrity, institutional autonomy, participation of students and staff in higher education governance and public responsibility for and of higher education.

Without them, the freedom to study and work throughout the EHEA becomes illusory, as shown by the situation in Hungary, Russia, Turkey and some other countries.

The best-known case is the Central European University, which was forced to move its teaching from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna, Austria. Restrictions can also touch individual disciplines: those studying or teaching gender studies in other EHEA countries cannot do so in Hungary since the authorities have closed gender study programmes.

Ethics and integrity are an integral part of the fundamental values of the EHEA. We can build neither higher education and research nor, more broadly, European society on the notion that cheating is acceptable as long as one does not get caught. Examples of academic fraud show why an academic version of Kant’s categorical imperative must be part of our ‘Bologna vision’.

We already have an instrument for the development of policy and practice through the Council of Europe’s ETINED platform. The next decade of the EHEA must include the development of a culture of ethics among its priorities.

Social inclusion

Quality education is among the top priorities of most public authorities and institutions. No leader can admit (s)he is aiming for second best, but quality often seems to be thought of as something that exists and ‘just’ has to be achieved. The notion of quality must include the will and ability education systems demonstrate to provide good opportunities for all learners in accordance with their ability and aspirations.

In Rome, ministers will be invited to take an important step by adopting Principles and Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the EHEA.

Technology and innovation

New technologies open new possibilities, as shown by the measures taken to keep teaching and research going in spite of the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with extensive recourse to online education and possibly also alternative organisation of exams.

The draft communiqué presented to the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) in early March – the last before coronavirus measures forced the BFUG online – underlines that the EHEA needs to be “connected, inclusive and innovative”.

These terms could easily be read as policy speak, but they can and must be developed into meaningful policies to draw on the opportunities offered by technological developments while avoiding their pitfalls.

An important aspect of innovation as well as of social responsibility is the role of higher education in furthering sustainable development and helping us meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For this it needs incentives and we all need to pool our intellectual resources.

Study yes, but work?

Ministers responsible for higher education have an obvious responsibility to create opportunities for study, but do they have the same responsibility to create opportunities for work? The answer must be a classic ‘yes and no’.

Ministers clearly have a responsibility with regard to the academic labour market: they need to ensure that those qualified for academic positions are able to teach and do research throughout the EHEA. They also have a responsibility to encourage higher education institutions to prepare graduates for a broad range of jobs requiring advanced competence.

Responsibility for the broader labour market does not lie with the ministries of education, but it does lie with the governments of which the ministers who will meet in Rome in November are part.

A vision altered by COVID-19?

At the time of writing, Europe is facing greater restrictions on movement than at any time since the end of the Second World War. There is broad agreement that the COVID-19 epidemic makes these restrictions necessary.

We do not yet know how long they will last, nor do we know how the epidemic will change our societies in the longer term. Undoubtedly, some political actors will use the crisis as an argument for closing borders, limiting contacts and reducing democratic participation.

Higher education must help develop the knowledge and understanding that will enable us to mitigate the effects of future pandemics and other sanitary crises.

Equally important, higher education must develop the competences in students, graduates and staff required for a culture of democracy and human rights. Developing vaccines against disease is crucial; developing ‘intellectual vaccines’ against the closing of minds is no less important.

Freedom to move cannot be real unless ideas move freely. And if ideas cannot move, structural reforms lose an important part of their rationale. The vision for the EHEA must be European in its values as well as in its practice.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group.