Possible scenarios on the path towards a European degreeannounced the first selection of the European Universities Initiative a year ago, it highlighted joint study programmes leading to a ‘European degree’ as one of the flagship activities of these alliances.
It has been clear from the start that the European Commission’s ambition for the initiative goes well beyond higher education cooperation as we have known it until now and envisages ambitious transnational alliances, with increased quality and competitiveness, where students can “design their own flexible criteria, leading to a European degree”.
Conceptualising these ambitions, at least the European degree, is among the plans of the German presidency of the Council of the European Union this autumn.
The idea of a European degree, which as such is not a new one, is fascinating and attractive, but it also raises many conceptual and practical questions. What does a European degree mean? How would it differ from the current degrees awarded by universities across Europe? Who would award it? And – importantly – what would the added value of such a degree be?
So, while the idea provokes much enthusiasm and discussion in the higher education community, it is unclear what it really means.
What is a European degree?
One can envisage at least three scenarios, each with some variations.
First, a European degree could be a quality label, available for joint programmes. In this case, it would need to be decided whether any joint programme would qualify. If yes, criteria would need to be defined. It would follow the logic of some existing disciplinary labels, such as the EUR-ACE for engineering or the ESEVT for veterinary education or the CeQuInt label for internationalisation.
The awarding of the label would need to be overseen by a designated body to ensure that the criteria are followed consistently.
Another option would be to award the label automatically (and exclusively) to joint programmes offered within the university alliances that are part of the Commission’s European Universities Initiative. In this respect the European degree would resemble the Erasmus Mundus joint programmes label. However, it now seems that this does not match the current ambitions of the initiative.
A second more ambitious scenario is for the European degree to become a qualification in its own right, available for the European Universities Initiative alliances. But who would award a European degree, and on what legal basis?
The European Union has no competence in this respect as it does not have a legal basis for regulating higher education degrees. There is no ‘European higher education system’ that could provide a (legal) framework for such degrees. Changing this status quo would require a change of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.
In Europe, degree-awarding powers are within the higher education institutions or within other bodies, such as qualifications agencies designated by national authorities. Degrees are related to a national qualifications framework (where such frameworks exist) and have a national legal basis.
A European degree – to be legally valid – should thus be awarded by one of the university partners in the consortium, linking the degree to the higher education system of the awarding partner. Alternatively, it could be awarded as a joint degree by all or several consortium partners, in which case it would be linked to each of those higher education systems.
The transferability of a qualification from one higher education system to another is ensured through streamlined qualification structures (in line with the European qualification frameworks) and quality assurance arrangements (ESG), which are expected to lead to an automatic recognition of qualifications and study periods in line with the Lisbon Recognition Convention. In other words, a qualification awarded in one European system should normally be automatically recognised as equivalent in another system.
Who controls it?
Would EU member states be ready to forfeit their role in the awarding of degrees? Ultimately, whoever grants degree-awarding powers will be the one with control over the degrees by having a say on how they should look, what quality criteria should be applied and in general which degrees can be considered as European degrees.
One way to work within the parameters of the current division of competencies between national authorities and the European Union would be for the European degree to become an additional degree category within each national system. It would be awarded based on meeting specific criteria attesting to the degree’s European dimension.
A third scenario consists of the European degree being developed into a qualification accessible to all higher education institutions either in the European Union or the entire European Higher Education Area, whether they are part of the European Universities Initiative or not.
But initial signs suggest this does not appear to be what the European Commission has in mind. It would also be a highly unlikely scenario: The questions posed and the complications related to the second scenario discussed above would be further amplified when potentially thousands of different kinds of consortia would be awarding these qualifications.
Who would decide on the criteria for such consortia and qualifications and take decisions regarding degree-awarding powers? If this decision-making remained with the national authorities as it has done up to now, then the European degree would basically become a
synonym for joint programmes as we know them already.
Why do we need it?
At this stage, it is not clear what we need the European degree for. Therefore, the value-added of such a European degree needs to be made explicit. Stakeholders need to discuss their expectations and needs in this respect and understand the complexities related to the different possible models of its implementation. It is important to avoid a situation in which additional bureaucracy is created for little added value.
An alternative way forward would be to focus on promoting and fully implementing the already existing tools supporting the development of joint programmes. In 2018, the ministers for higher education adopted the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes which still needs to be put in practice.
Similarly, the European Council has made a recommendation on promoting automatic mutual recognition of higher education and upper secondary education and training qualifications and the outcomes of learning periods abroad (2018/C 444/01), which takes the Lisbon Recognition Convention commitments one step further.
This way forward would enforce the idea of a European degree being any degree awarded by European higher education institutions, automatically recognised all over Europe. It would also avoid creating two levels of qualifications and thus ensure protection of student and graduates’ rights, which should be of high priority for all parties when further developing the idea of a European degree.
Maria Kelo is the director of the ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) Secretariat and has a wide range of experience related to international higher education. At ENQA she works with member agencies in the development of external quality assurance in Europe and provides expertise on the topic in international projects worldwide. Tia Loukkola is the director of the Institutional Development unit at the European University Association (EUA). She is in charge of a variety of EUA’s activities dealing with improving and monitoring the quality of universities and their educational mission, as well as specific topics including quality assurance, recognition, rankings and learning and teaching. This article is also published on the EUA’s Expert Voices blog.