European Education Area takes a ‘major leap forward’

The European Commission has set out its vision for achieving a European Education Area (EEA), its flagship initiative, by 2025.

Improving quality and inclusiveness along with a greater focus on digital and green dimensions in European member state education systems are central to the proposals, which are being designed to “enable learners to move easily between education systems in different countries and help create a culture of lifelong learning”.

In higher education the aim is to encourage joint curriculum development across universities in different countries, policy support for transnational cooperation via higher education alliances, a strong role for education institutions in supporting the recovery from COVID-19 and sustainable development, deeper faster international cooperation on studying abroad and a stronger focus on advanced digital skills.

The announcement has been described as “a major leap forward” by the European University Association.

The plan is part of a package aimed at unlocking Europe’s potential in education, research and innovation by encouraging member states of the European Union to work more closely together so that citizens of all ages can benefit from what the commission calls “the EU’s rich education and training offer”.

In welcoming the communication from the commission together with another on the European Research Area and the updated Digital Education Action Plan (see our special report), as “a major leap forward”, EUA Secretary General Amanda Crowfoot, said: “We must ensure that the governance of the European Research Area and the European Education Area enable dialogue and synergies, is transparent and directly involves stakeholders.”

She stressed that the EU actions must focus on the areas “where we get the most out of working at the European level and build on Europe’s rich and diverse research and higher education systems in a bottom-up manner”.

Enabling framework

The European Education Area will be developed through “an enabling framework”, says the commission, with a steering board representing the EU member states.

Many of the EU-level targets are aimed at raising the skills levels of younger children, but they also include the ambition that 90% of 20- to 24-year-olds should have at least an upper secondary qualification and that the share of 30- to 34-year-olds with tertiary educational attainment should be at least 50%.

Tia Loukkola, director of institutional development at the European University Association, or EUA, told University World News: “Due to the competence on education matters being at members’ level, the EU’s role in education is limited to supporting member states’ actions, developing a European dimension and fostering educational quality.

“To realise the ambitious agenda outlined in the commission’s communication, the support of EU member states for common policy priorities will be crucial. This is why it is important that the actions that are chosen to be taken forward bring added value to any national policies and actions.

“We further believe that, when elaborating and operationalising actions now outlined in the communication, it is important to build on the wealth of existing collaboration, initiatives and policies as well as lessons learned from them.

Involving stakeholders

“It is vital that representative bodies of key stakeholders, such as universities, are systematically involved in both governing frameworks providing evidence and serving as full partners in a structured dialogue with political decision-makers.”

Loukkola said the European University Initiative is one of the flagship actions in the field of higher education highlighted in the communication along with exploring the feasibility of European degrees and other actions that are not linked to the initiative, such as recognition of qualifications and study-abroad periods and a European approach to micro-credentials.

In its reaction, the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said: “Cooperation between universities offers an opportunity to learn from each other, share resources, and develop common standards. This is why we strongly support the commission’s ambition to further develop the EEA and increase the quality and competitiveness of European universities globally.

“The European Universities initiative has enabled the sector to work on new and ‘out of the box’ approaches to learning and teaching, but this should now be facilitated with national and EU level support that goes well beyond the limited Erasmus+ budget. By building on existing good practices and engaging in a true dialogue with the university sector, the EEA has a potential to push for meaningful changes.”

Recognition of foreign qualifications

Jenneke Lokhoff, senior policy officer at Nuffic (Dutch ENIC-NARIC) and President of the ENIC Bureau, ENIC-NARIC Networks, told University World News the communication from the European Commission “re-confirms the essential role of recognition of foreign qualifications and periods of study for the realisation of the EEA”.

She said: “Promising for the recognition community at large is the emphasises for synergies with existing initiatives and structures and the commitment to dialogue with the ENIC-NARIC Networks.”

Lokhoff told University World News that, beyond automatic recognition, “this communication addresses two developments in the education landscape that are expected to have a major impact on the recognition field: the flexibilisation of education – with a focus on micro-credentials – and the digitisation of student data and the recognition process, Europass.

She said this would not only benefit recognition in the EU member states, but also add to the evidence base of how to deal with these issues elsewhere, which can ultimately benefit learners outside of the EU member states as well.

Higher education goals

In the Higher Education section of the Communication on ‘Achieving the European Education Area by 2025’, the document says European higher education systems should aim at:

• Closer and deeper cooperation between higher education institutions, which could lead to more joint curriculum development and common courses and would enable learners to move more easily between education systems in different countries, thereby developing a pan-European talent pool, including cutting-edge scientific disciplines and technologies such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and high-performance computing.

• A policy framework across borders that allows for seamless transnational cooperation, which will enable alliances of higher education institutions to leverage their strengths, pooling together their online and physical resources, courses, expertise, data and infrastructure across disciplines.

• Higher education institutions as central actors of the “knowledge square”: education, research, innovation and service to society, playing a key role in driving the COVID-19 recovery and sustainable development in Europe while helping education, research and the labour market to benefit from talent flows.

• Automatic recognition of qualifications and study periods abroad for the purpose of further learning, quality assurance of joint transnational activities and the recognition and portability of short courses leading to micro-credentials. This would allow member states to go deeper and faster in their cooperation, as compared to what they are able to do now in the context of the Bologna process. The European Education Area can act as a motor for the Bologna process, inspiring and supporting other member countries of the European Higher Education Area to benefit from a similar path.

• A stronger focus on specialised education programmes in advanced digital skills such as in cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and high-performance computing as there is an acute lack of experts in these fields.

Nic Mitchell is a journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities communication network, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support on a freelance basis for European universities and specialist higher education media.