How can Europe pretend to be an innovative knowledge economy with an ageing workforce? Marta Borque Roda, alumna of the College of Europe and contributor to Regards Croisés nº6 working for the unit dealing with the management of International Education Programmes at the European Commission highlights how introducing a European dimension European University system will bring important gains in innovation and attractiveness.
Increasing the attractiveness and quality of European Universities
« Many countries now fear that demographic changes in their population are leading to a substantial contraction of their higher education systems, with implications for their human resources and international competitiveness », says a recently published study by OECD. In Europe there are around 4,000 higher education institutions, with over 17 million students and 1.5 million staff. This archipelago is perceived outside our borders as culturally attractive and more affordable than other systems but at the same time too heterogeneous, traditional and non dynamic.
A « European brand » to help perceive European higher education as a whole could improve the attractiveness of our system. Its creation entails a complex process and requires some prior actions: adapt national legislations, increase communication between higher education institutions across the continent in order to create networks, create cooperation tools (compatibility of degrees, credit transfer systems, qualification frameworks), promote quality and ensure the visibility of the initiatives and the dissemination of information. Who and how can undertake and fund these actions?
As a first step, a European brand in higher education can only be created through the agreement on common policy lines between states. That is why 46 countries participate in the Bologna Process, a pan European project aiming at the achievement of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) through intergovernmental cooperation. The European Commission also plays a role in the process as an additional full member.
Within the European Union, while higher education falls under national competence, the Treaty on European Union, Title VIII, Chapter 3, entitles the Community to encourage cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, to support and supplement their action to achieve common goals. In this line, the European Commission has carried out studies and issued communications on the modernisation of higher education and adopted concrete programmes, such as Erasmus and Erasmus Mundus, contributing to shape the EHEA.
1.9 million students have participated in Erasmus since it was launched in 1987 and every academic year two hundred thousand individuals become Erasmus students. These exchanges are possible thanks to cooperation mechanisms previously designed at EU level. These mechanisms and instruments are used by higher education institutions which often need to adapt themselves to the suggested EU common standards. Instruments include the Erasmus University Charter, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), the European Qualification Framework for lifelong learning (EQF) and the Europass. The fact that around 90% of European universities take part in Erasmus means that all have integrated most of the abovementioned instruments and have therefore entered a process of convergence.
The Erasmus Mundus programme takes a step further. It offers generous grants to students and academics from all over the world to participate in joint programmes (masters and doctorates) as well as mobility schemes to experience a stay in the EU at all academic levels. In addition it provides funding for projects enhancing the attractiveness of the EU as a higher education destination. As in the previous example, the aim of the programme goes beyond offering academic opportunities to individuals. In Erasmus Mundus universities from different countries have to create a consortium, submit a common project of outstanding quality, offer a joint or a double degree/or recognisable study period and guarantee a clockwork coordination to ensure the well-being of visiting students and academics. As a result international networks of higher education institutions start to flourish, national regulations tend to converge and individuals benefit from an experience with a genuine European added value: studying a master, for instance, in three different European countries with students from all over the world. A further initiative for promoting Europe as a higher education destination is the « Study in Europe » website where up-to-date information is provided on thirty-two European countries, their universities and what it takes to live and study in them.
Considering that currently being a knowledge based society might be a condition for the EU to play a role in the global scene, more than ever, European universities need to be competitive to form qualified well prepared individuals, and attractive to appeal students from both Europe and the rest of the world.
Marta Borque Roda
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Academic Cooperation Association, Perceptions of European Higher Education in Third Countries, ACA, Project 2004 – 3924 / 001 – 001 MUN-MUNA31, November 2005.
Higher Education to 2030 (Vol. 1): Demography. OECD, 2008
Documents from the European Commission on the modernisation of European Universities: « Delivering on the Modernisation Agenda for Universities: Education, Research, Innovation »,COM(2006) 208. See also the website of the Commission Higher Education in Europe and the Council Resolution on modernising universities for Europe’s competitiveness in a global knowledge economy.