Future challenges for the European Higher Education Area

With the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in its third decade, it may be worth doing a double exercise: looking at how we got to where we are today and also looking at some of the main challenges we will face in the next few years.

The EHEA was born in a specific context. Politically, the 1990s were characterised in Europe by very significant changes, often described under the shorthand reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was not only the Wall that fell but also the regimes that had built it and kept it standing because they felt they needed to protect their citizens against influences from the West, but even more because they felt a need to keep their citizens in place – quite literally – and protect themselves from their own citizens.

The fall of the Wall brought democracy in the sense of new laws and institutions as well as competitive elections. The optimism of the early 1990s was, however, tempered as it became apparent that authentic democracy requires more than institutions, laws and elections. It requires a culture of democracy, which must primarily be developed through education.

The need for societies to be sustainable, which was less present on the political agenda of the early 1990s than it is now, can also best be met if societies are democratic and if higher education plays a key role.

The fall of the Wall also made possible European cooperation in the true sense of the word, meaning the whole continent, in a way that had been unthinkable even in the mid- to late 1980s.

The expanded possibilities for cooperation throughout Europe were rooted in specific circumstances but were also part of an increasing globalisation. Globalisation is not a new phenomenon, but the speed of the process has picked up considerably, with an emphasis on organised over individual mobility.

In spite of longstanding programmes like the Marshall Scholarships and Fulbright Program, the launch of the Erasmus programme in 1987 is the strongest indicator of this shift. Regional mobility programmes like Nordplus and CEEPUS are part of the same trend.

In the 1990s there were also acute concerns about whether European higher education was as attractive as it had once been. These concerns were at the root of the 1998 Attali report, which had a direct impact on the establishment of the Bologna Process.

This concern was also frequently expressed by employers, and ‘employability’ became a key term in the European higher education debate. The broader societal functions of higher education were less prominent in this debate.

The Bologna Process

The Bologna Process was launched in 1999 as the key response to these concerns by European ministers responsible for higher education. Its goal was to launch a European Higher Education Area “within the first decade of the third millennium” (the Bologna Declaration).

Structural reforms were a central part of the response. There was already an updated European treaty to facilitate the fair recognition of qualifications through the 1997 Council of Europe-UNESCO’s Lisbon Recognition Convention. The two other parts of the structural reforms agenda of the EHEA – quality assurance and qualifications frameworks – were not prominent in 1999.

There was still debate about whether a formal quality assurance system was needed and the first qualifications frameworks were developed not in Europe but in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Both policy areas quickly became part of the EHEA agenda and the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) and the Overarching framework of qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (QF-EHEA) were adopted in 2005; the ESG was then revised 10 years later.

The QF-EHEA, in particular, was an important part of the effort to reduce drop-out by introducing a three-cycle qualifications framework in all EHEA countries.

Today, we may take the system often referred to as bachelor-masters-doctorate for granted, but the reform of the degree system was bitterly contested in several countries in the early days of the Bologna Process.

The examples often used to argue that first degrees were not viable were often drawn from the regulated professions. However, the fact that you cannot be a surgeon or an engineer on the strength of a first degree does not mean that a degree of 180 or 240 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System credits has no purpose other than preparing for further studies.

A further change of attitudes took place with regard to short-cycle qualifications, which were the main point of discussion at the Bergen Ministerial conference in 2005 when the QF-EHEA was adopted.

One minister even maintained that nothing short of three years could be considered higher education. Even if ministers accepted that short-cycle qualifications could be incorporated into national frameworks as part of the first cycle, it was not until 2018 that the short cycle was incorporated into the QF-EHEA as a stand-alone qualification.

Even if structural reforms were central to the EHEA, other policy areas were also prominent.

The desire to increase academic mobility gave rise to a Mobility Strategy as well as the goal that “in 2020, at least 20% of those graduating in the European Higher Education Area should have had a study or training period abroad”.

Global cooperation is now firmly established as one of the concerns of the EHEA. Not least, the social dimension of higher education has gained prominence, with the adoption of the Principles and Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the EHEA in 2020 as the strongest policy statement so far.


The COVID pandemic, which caught us unawares in spring 2020, has had as strong an impact on education as on any other area. As underlined in the Council of Europe’s political declaration and Roadmap for Action on the education response to COVID-19, we must not allow the health crisis to turn into a crisis of democracy and education is key to making our societies sustainable and resilient.

While the initial response to the pandemic by schools, higher education institutions, students and teachers as well as public authorities was in most cases convincing, it was by necessity also improvised. In an era of increased international cooperation, it is something of a paradox that the initial COVID response was overwhelmingly national rather than European or global. Academic mobility was one of the areas that suffered the greatest collateral damage.

We need to draw on the experiences of the COVID crisis, which we can regrettably not yet describe in the past tense, to devise strategies for meeting future crises, including health crises.

Any such strategy must include measures to maintain international cooperation when travel may have to be greatly reduced. Strategies should also consider how different modes of learning and teaching may best be combined.

Whereas before the COVID crisis there was some concern about whether higher education made adequate use of online options, the concern now is rather whether there is sufficient face-to-face interaction between students and teachers. The high quality institution of the future will, among other things, need to find the proper balance between online and face-to-face learning and teaching.

Challenges as we look to 2030

Our response to COVID-19 and other crises will undoubtedly be among the challenges we continue to face over the next decade. These challenges are too many to consider exhaustively, but they include at least the following elements.

Structures are important, and as we have seen, the structural reform of education systems has so far been the most prominent feature of the EHEA. It is, nevertheless, important not to lose sight of the fact that structures are not goals in themselves – they are the means to achieve goals.

The structural reforms of the EHEA have largely been intended to reduce drop-out and make higher education better adapted to the labour market and they have been fairly successful in this respect.

However, structures need to be reconsidered if they no longer fulfil their purpose or if new objectives are defined. Whether this will be the case as we approach 2030 is too early to say, but we must be open to the possibility.

Whereas ‘employability’ was probably the most frequent term in the higher education debate at the time the Bologna Process was launched, ‘quality’ now seems equally prominent.

Nobody can, of course, be against quality education or publicly state that they aim to be second or third best. However, there is little consideration of what we mean by ‘quality’. Individual academic disciplines, of course, have their internal standards, but we have less clear views of what we want higher education to achieve overall.

Quality must be assessed in relation to the purposes we seek to achieve. An institution whose stated purpose is to provide first- and second-degree programmes aimed at students from a specific region of a country cannot be assessed according to the criteria used for a university that aims to be world class in research.

Therefore, the quality of higher education must be assessed in relation to the degree to which it:

• Prepares students for the labour market.
• Prepares them for life as active citizens in democratic societies.
• Fosters personal development.
• Develops and maintains a broad, advanced knowledge base.

The EHEA builds on cooperation between public authorities and the academic community of higher education institutions, staff and students. Higher education cannot be conducted or reformed from ministry offices alone, but public authorities are responsible for the education system and the framework within which institutions, staff and students work.

It is one of the achievements of the EHEA that, even if their views do not always coincide, representatives of institutions, staff and students have played an essential role in developing ‘Bologna’.

This cooperation is important also for what may be the greatest challenge of all over the next decade. The fundamental values of the EHEA – academic freedom and integrity, institutional autonomy, participation of students and staff in higher education governance and public responsibility for and of higher education – were long taken for granted, but have been brought to the fore over the past five or six years.

The reason is that these values have come under increasing pressure in several EHEA members and not just the three – Hungary, Russia and Turkey – identified in the 2018 Implementation Report.

As I write these lines, the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) is preparing to consider a proposal that the Belarusian co-chairmanship of the BFUG, foreseen for autumn 2022, be suspended at least for the current work period in view of the persecution of higher education students and staff in the aftermath of the failed presidential election in August 2020.

The discussion of this proposal, as well as the fact that a statement on the situation in Belarus presented by the then-BFUG co-chairs Germany and the United Kingdom in November 2020 obtained the support of only a relatively narrow majority of EHEA members, indicate that safeguarding the values on which the EHEA is built in the face of a broader backlash against democracy in Europe will be the perhaps greatest challenge it will face in its third decade.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department, a post from which he will retire at the end of January 2022, and a long-time member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group. This article builds on his keynote speech at the annual HERE conference organised by the European University Association and the University of Barcelona on 18-19 November 2021.