European degree at heart of EU strategy for universities

Expanding the European Universities Initiative and establishing a joint European degree are at the heart of the European Strategy for Universities and recommendations for “building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation”, proposed by the European Commission (EC) on 18 January.

The objective is, by mid-2024, to focus on strengthening the European dimension in higher education through flagship initiatives “that will be for transnational cooperation what Erasmus+ has been for student mobility so far and Horizon Europe for excellent research: the visible expression of a distinctly European approach”.

The four flagship initiatives include the scaling-up of the European Universities Initiative to 60 alliances with up to 500 institutions involved in total, working towards establishing joint European degrees, the exploration of a legal statute for university alliances and the roll-out of the European Student Card.

Other objectives include to support universities as ‘lighthouses of our European way of life’, empower universities to be drivers of green and digital transition, and reinforce universities as drivers of the European Union’s global role and leadership.

“Through deeper international cooperation within Europe and beyond, support universities in becoming more outward looking and competitive on the global scene, and in contributing to the strengthening of higher education systems in partner countries, in line with European values.

“This will help in turn in boosting Europe’s attractiveness not only as a study destination, but also as an attractive global partner for cooperation in education, research and innovation,” the EC said in its proposal.

Underpinning the entire proposal is the belief that universities are critical to leading the response to big societal and global challenges through effective transnational collaboration; and that the principle of inclusive excellence across all four missions of universities makes the EU’s approach distinct compared to other parts of the world.

“Excellent and inclusive universities are a condition and foundation for open, democratic, fair and sustainable societies as well as sustained growth, entrepreneurship and employment,” the proposal says.

The objective to support universities as ‘lighthouses of our European way of life’ includes a number of guidelines and frameworks to promote attractive careers in higher education, pedagogical innovation, gender equality and academic values.

‘An important step forward’

The European University Association (EUA), responding to the proposal in a statement on 19 January, said it welcomed both documents “as an important step forward in connecting the university-related elements of the European Education Area and the European Research Area, building on the European Higher Education Area”.

“Fostering synergies between university missions and supporting institutions through policies and programmes is crucial in enabling universities to fulfil their role in society,” the EUA said.

The proposals offered a coherent and positive narrative for universities, linking their development to the key societal challenges ahead, it added.

“EUA is pleased to see that the Commission recognises the contributions of universities and seeks to promote the improvement of framework conditions to support them in achieving their aspirations.”

The EUA said the package places considerable focus on supporting transnational cooperation, where EU-level action has significant added value.

“At the same time, it links this to the societal context of democratic decline, inequality and diversity, as well as the green and digital transitions and geopolitical changes.”

But it said that although the links made with research and innovation are welcome, they could have been even stronger, notably the push for a reform of academic careers and assessment towards parity of esteem of university missions and mainstreaming of ‘open science’.

Challenges of implementation

The EUA warned, however, that implementation of the flagship initiatives will require the different European levels – the EU with the European Education Area and the European Research Area as well as the Bologna Process, the national and regional levels, universities and other stakeholders – to continue to work together.

“Only such collaboration through transparent structures and processes systematically involving key stakeholders will ensure the adequate level of coherence and the fitness for purpose of concrete instruments, such as joint European degrees or a legal statute for transnational university alliances,” the EUA statement said.

“In this context, there are still questions of ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ for several initiatives and answering these will be a main task in the near future. Further implementation of already existing Bologna Process tools and instruments and system-level reforms at the national level remain crucial.”

Better alignment of funding programmes at the EU and national levels will be important, the EUA said.

Member states’ track record ‘weak’

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) welcomed both documents but warned that however “nice and ambitious these EC documents may be, the realisation of them will primarily be a matter for the member states, most of which don’t have a strong track record in the field of education, research and innovation policy and funding”.

LERU warned that the European strategy misses two “very crucial” things to enable the transformation of higher education institutions.

The first is funding. LERU said while universities can and will contribute to the strongly promoted EU twin transitions, greening and digitalisation, by respectively training the next generation of students and by stimulating research in crucial areas, they also need to make transitions themselves.

“According to the strategy, they need to become more inclusive, digital and sustainable, to connect better with the wider public and with the private sector, to uphold and support values, and to strengthen interdisciplinary research,” the LERU statement on 20 January said.

“Stimulating these changes and realising these transformations requires long-term, stable funding, for both education and research activities. Clearly, there will not be any additional funding from the EU budget, on top of what is already available (Horizon Europe, Digital Europe, Erasmus, etc). So, will member states come up with the necessary support? This is doubtful, given their miserly track record.”

LERU Secretary-General Kurt Deketelaere said: “The EC can ‘support’, ‘encourage’ and ‘promote’ all kinds of things, but without real member state support and funding, the European strategy will remain a wonderful list of aspirations.”

Reducing barriers to collaboration

The second crucial factor identified by LERU is the need for member states to reduce, voluntarily, barriers to pan-European and international collaboration of universities, in the field of research and education.

LERU said the development of both a European degree and a European statute for European Universities could be a good first step to removing barriers more widely later on.

“This is especially necessary to support the work of the European University Alliances, but it would also benefit universities more widely when entering partnerships and cross-border collaboration. LERU hopes member states will have the courage to adopt the draft recommendation as proposed, and then also implement it.”

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities welcomed the strategy as “a framework which recognises the rich potential and contribution of Europe’s universities to our society through research, education and innovation”.

However, in a statement in response to the Commission’s presentation, it said: “Although there is much to welcome – the articulation of funding needs for universities, respect for academic freedom and university autonomy, diversity and inclusion targets, or the importance of global excellence – there is a genuine question whether the strategy is visionary enough. And how well it captures the research and innovation dimension which is discussed in the framework of the European Research Area.”

The Guild said the Council Recommendation on Building Bridges for Effective European Higher Education Cooperation offers a new momentum for member states to take action through legislation, policy and funding.

Actions to boost research ‘lacking’

“However, the strategy lacks concrete actions to boost bottom-up research excellence. It contains only a brief mention of the upcoming European Excellence Initiative which should ‘raise excellence in science and in knowledge valorisation of Europe’s universities and improve global competitiveness of European Universities’.”

On the invitation to universities to lead the shift to a green and digital revolution, the Guild strongly urges the EU to “support contributions from all subject domains, including the social sciences and humanities”.

“Also, universities’ commitment to these transversal challenges comes from within and goes beyond short-term policy cycles. Therefore, we need trust-based funding and quality assurance systems that encourage risk-taking,” the Guild said.

The Guild said the strategy should focus on strengthening universities at a global level, notably their capacity for world-leading research and education.

“For this, we need a much richer discussion about how the EU can help universities improve their capacities for research across Europe. This should go beyond the European Universities and start with a particular vision for excellent science collaboration within Europe, beyond the boundaries of the EU.”

The strategy emphasises the importance of developing equitable partnerships in other regions of the world and recognises the key role of universities in strengthening cooperation on research and innovation, but, the Guild says, “it is particularly regrettable that it does not introduce any new initiatives to support Europe’s global leadership”.

LERU said, as regards upholding democratic values and protecting academic freedom, the strategy, again, remains too vague.

“Clearly, on those issues, the EU has to lead by example and inspire the member states, where and when needed and-or desired. Therefore, LERU explicitly calls upon the EC to develop legal measures to secure academic freedom and to defend democratic values within the European Union,” its 20 January statement said.