Strategy seeks ‘inclusive excellence’ for European HE

Higher education has been central to the European project since the beginning. The establishment of the European University Institute in Florence was first discussed in the 1960s, having evolved out of a general debate about the future of universities at the Hague Conference in 1948. The Sorbonne Declaration (1998) promoted “a Europe of knowledge”, while the Bologna Declaration (1999) affirmed the importance of the free movement of students, faculty and workers across national boundaries.

Strong links between education, research and innovation, and transnational cooperation, have been a defining feature of European Union initiatives and higher education systems – an exemplar to other nations and regions.

On 18 January, the EU went even further when it published the European Strategy for Universities and the Council Recommendation on Building Bridges for Effective European Higher Education Cooperation, along with the Staff Working Document.

Today the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area comprise close to 5,000 higher education institutions, 17.5 million students, 1.35 million academics and 1.17 million researchers. All sections of European higher education are included and are to be supported.

At a time when many parts of the world are embroiled in civil and political unrest – and intellectual and scientific endeavour and academic freedom are being challenged – the EU has put European values and European universities at the heart of its future. No more powerful statement – with its wide-ranging geopolitical implications – has been or can be made today.

European strategy and recommendations

The European Strategy for Universities sets out the vision and ambition, building on and going beyond achievements of the past 20 years. The European Council Recommendation on Building Bridges sets out the specific actions that member states and the European Commission should implement to support European higher education and transnational cooperation.

Finally, the Staff Working Document identifies existing European legislation, actions and initiatives, challenges and gaps and discusses the evidence underpinning the recommendations.

The overall objective is to strengthen European higher education on the world stage as a leader in education, research and innovation and a welcoming destination for European and international talent. Transnational cooperation is seen as key, taking the European Higher Education Area, as well as the European Education Area and European Research Area, to the next level.

Deepening and expanding Erasmus+ European Universities is a key objective. The EU will fund alliances that structurally integrate and develop strategic cooperation across education, research and innovation and service to society.

Since 2018, 41 such Erasmus+ European Universities have been selected with 280 European higher education institutions involved; the aim is to increase that to 60 European Universities while also expanding the number of higher education institutions involved.

This initiative will both expand and complement the Erasmus+ intra-European student and staff mobility scheme – the largest mobility programme in the world. Students will be encouraged to move around Europe, to start and continue their studies at different institutions and in different countries.

At a time of accelerating massification and demand for skills and upskilling, the diversity of higher education institutions across Europe is a source of strength. The principle of ‘inclusive excellence’ reaffirms that ‘excellence’ occurs across all the core missions – learning and teaching, research and innovation, knowledge use and diffusion, engagement and service to society and institutional governance and management. Inclusion and excellence are mutually reinforcing.

In emphasising these principles, the EU presents a strong critique of global rankings which have been around for almost 20 years. By narrowly defining excellence only in terms of elite universities and research, they have undermined social and regional cohesion.

Proposed actions aim to remove barriers to successful transnational cooperation, including promoting interdisciplinary approaches in joint transnational education modules and programmes. The European Student Card will be scaled up. This will create a European identification card for students recognised across the European Union with the aim of supporting student mobility and easing access to social provisions, cultural activities, etc.

A legal statute is proposed to support the structural integration of European transnational alliances, such as the European Universities. Another notable proposal is the European Degree. It will be a certificate granted to students who have obtained a joint degree from a European alliance of higher education institutions fulfilling common European standards.

Both initiatives are ambitious and bold steps towards overcoming obstacles to transnational cooperation due to differences in accreditation systems and implementation of the Bologna Process, which created the European Higher Education Area, of which the European Commission is a member, along with 49 countries.

A European Higher Education Sector Observatory will combine the best of the current EU data tools and capacities and provide an evidence and research base, as well as monitoring progress towards objectives.

Such actions could raise accusations of EU over-reach. The subsidiarity principle gives the European Commission the right to coordinate and support policies on higher education at the European level – although higher education is principally a nation state issue, providing for national citizens and funded by taxpayers.

Yet, these initiatives are strongly supported by stakeholder feedback. They are considered essential if transnational alliances are to fulfil their ambition – and help position and strengthen European competitiveness.

EU priorities

The Strategy and Recommendation are strongly aligned with European priorities: 1) A Europe fit for the digital age, 2) A European Green Deal, 3) A new push for European democracy, 4) A stronger Europe in the world and 5) Promoting our European way of life.

Together they testify to an ambitious European higher education agenda backed by a significant financial commitment through its financial programmes: Erasmus+, Horizon Europe, Digital Europe, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, the Structural Funds and InvestEU.

The EU reaffirms the importance of the diversity of higher education institutions in Europe and commits to funding all types of institutions and their diverse purposes. It signals continued commitment to knowledge circulation and international collaboration with partners beyond the EU.

Finally, the Strategy re-asserts the European values and the ‘European way’ to higher education, such as respect for academic freedom and university autonomy, student and staff involvement in higher education governance and support for diversity, inclusiveness and gender equality in higher education and research.

The European Strategy for Universities and the European Council Recommendation are a big deal. They represent a very significant statement by the European Commission – together with the 27 member states – to support and invest in higher education and research and to bring forward the actions necessary for a dramatic advance.

Some of the changes are easy, but many are not. They will require commitment by member states and the multitude of different stakeholders – but their impact will be transformative. Illustrative of the key message in the documents themselves, by working collectively across borders, European higher education and research can maximise its capacities and capabilities.

Ellen Hazelkorn is joint managing partner at BH Associates – education consultants, professor emeritus of the Technological University Dublin, Ireland, and joint editor of Policy Reviews in Higher Education. She is co-editor of the Research Handbook on University Rankings. Manja Klemencic is lecturer on sociology of higher education at the faculty of arts and sciences, Harvard University, United States. She is co-editor of the European Journal of Higher Education and co-editor of the Springer book series Higher Education Dynamics and of the Bloomsbury book series Understanding Student Experiences of Higher Education.