The idea of “European Universities” has become already a key building block for the European integration efforts in the continent’s education sphere. Starting with 17 EU-universities a couple of years ago, the EU-wide “university clusters” presently are enlarged to 41; they are involving 280 institutions in the EU-27 and around. The initiative is backed by € 287 million from the EU budget to support the European “education area” project to becomes a tangible reality.
The “European universities” are the transnational alliances of higher education institutions from the EU member states; they are meant –at least in theory – to benefit students, teachers and socio-economic development. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an additional sign that deeper cooperation across borders, scientific disciplines, cultures, etc. is the only way to recover from the crisis and to create a resilient society.
It has to be kept in mind in the first place, that education, according to the EU’s basic law, is the EU’s supporting activity, together with such fields as culture, arts, tourism, sports etc.; so “education policy” is predominantly in the national competences. Therefore, the Commission’s efforts in education (although called “policy” as well) have additional, supplementary competence to that of the member states. Somehow, the Commission is to closely “watch” the member states’ efforts in meeting the European targets: e.g. to enable young people to become active participants both at national and the EU-wide perspective growth patterns.
The Commission has already given some fresh impetus to this goal: in the beginning of 2018 it adopted a recommendation on promoting European shared values in inclusive education and the European dimension of teaching. Thus the EU’s role in this regard, generally, is to assist the states in implementing perspective policy priorities in education and stimulating investment in new knowledge.
One of the perspective trends in European education, keeping in mind the increasing integrationist agenda, is making the whole process a sort of an “EU-wide” arrangement: i.e. universities by their nature are “out-ward-institutions” stretching toward globally spread knowledge and science. Purely “nationalist” universities are a thing “in the past” and generally outdated; i.e. the fact that is to be kept in mind by the national education policy’s decision-makers.
Challenges in modern education
Future is hard to predict: it challenges numerous public policy guidelines; thus, national governing elites being at a difficult historic moment (unlike any other period in history with the COVID-19) can feel an end of the “theoretical principle of the infinite substitution of labour capital” with the intensive arrival of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and numerous forms of digitalisation. All these features are going to transform traditional labour processes in governing bodies, businesses and universities.
According to one scenario, the huge gearing up for an “intelligent capitalism” in manufacturing and services promises the disappearance of labour as a factor of production; that theory is advocating the disappearance of traditional skills and jobs’, i.e. “joblessness concept” in favor of loose types of education and training reacting to apparent circumstances.
Another scenario (a “hybrid one”) argues that the future can be predicted and even changed; i.e. governing efforts should be on the “augmented intelligence” rather than on some autonomous learning and training systems; the scenario would provide elites and human beings with a kind of firm control over the education facets.
Still, the third scenario (a “normal” one) states that it is business as usual and that AI and intelligent systems are just another tech-hype discourse that will erode, but also create, new skills and jobs.
If either the first or second scenarios are more likely to be correct, the states are facing serious problems, in particular in the Baltic States that during last three decades were building capital/labour duality: parliamentary democracy representing some dominant political parties and new mechanisms of “tripartite-negotiations” reflecting businesses, trade unions the government.
All three scenarios are based on models of change, but the first two recognise that there is something at work that is different from old linear industrial processes of scale and assembly.
European education policy for 2020: main targets
Education policy-2020 pursues the following four common EU objectives: 1. Making lifelong learning and mobility a reality, 2. Improving quality and efficiency of education and training; 3. Promoting equity, social cohesion, and active citizenship; and 4. Enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training.
Alongside the four EU-wide educational objectives, there are eight European benchmarks for the member states’ policies, at least up to 2020:
- An average of at least 15 % of adults should participate in lifelong learning.
- The share of low-achieving 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science should be less than 15 %.
- The share of 30-34 year-olds with tertiary educational attainment should be at least 40 %.
- The share of early leavers from education and training should be less than 10 %.
- At least 95 % of children between 4 years old and the age for starting compulsory primary education should participate in early childhood education.
- The share of employed graduates (20-34 year-olds) having left education and training 1-3 years before the reference year should be at least 82 %.
- An EU average of at least 20 % of higher education graduates should have had a period of higher education-related study or training (including work placements) abroad, representing a minimum of 15 ECTS credits or lasting a minimum of three months.
- An EU average of at least 6 % of 18-34 year-olds with an initial vocational education and training (IVET) qualification should have had an IVET-related study or training period (including work placements) abroad lasting a minimum of two weeks, or less if documented by Europass.
Source: The EU targets for 2020: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/education-and-training/eu-benchmarks
European-wide education area: purpose and aims
“European universities” concept includes different types of higher education institutions, from art academies to technical and applied science universities, to culture, journalism and media schools to comprehensive and research-intensive universities, etc.
About 280 higher education institutions from all EU member states and beyond (including capital cities and remote European regions) are involved in creating European-wide alliances in main spheres of modern education. Each alliance is composed on average of seven higher education institutions; some alliances are comprehensive and cover all disciplines, others are focusing for example on sustainable development, health and well-being, digitalisation and artificial intelligence, art, culture, engineering, space, etc.
The Commission’s general idea is aimed at creating ultimately a “European Education Area” containing all modern challenges and perspectives in education. Among some evident achievements during last years have been, for example: studying and learning abroad (which has become a widely accepted practice for millions of students); school and higher education qualifications have been slowly recognized across the EU (though a lot is to be done to finalize the concept); knowledge of two languages in addition to one’s mother tongue is going to be a recognized standard; in most countries everyone is already able to access high-quality education, irrespective of socio-economic background, etc.
However, the most important part of a “European education area” is not an idea of education systems oriented towards perspective growth patterns (with digital skills, circular economy, SDGs’ involvement, etc.) but an idea that more people should have a strong sense of their identity as Europeans (hence in the EU citizens’ passports the notion of “European Union” precedes that of national identification), with a sense of European-wide cultural heritage and its diversity. Reference to:
In this regard, the Commission’s vision in a European Education Area combines the following four components: a) a strengthened Erasmus+ programme; b) a European-wide policy cooperation in education and training; c) support for the member state reforms through the European Semester; and d) better targeted use of numerous European funds.
For example, in July 2020, the European Commission unveiled additional 24 European Universities to join the initial 17 alliances of higher education institutions selected already in 2019. With financial support from the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programs, they would enhance the quality, inclusion, digitalisation and attractiveness of European higher education. Newly selected 24 European Universities involve 165 higher education institutions from 26 EU member states and other countries participating in the Erasmus+ program.
The process of strengthening the linkages among universities and their counterparts at the European and global levels can be further supported and stimulated through the so-called “European universities” project; besides, national research councils can gain from such efforts too.
As to the financing issues, in total, a budget of up to €287 million is available for the designed 41 European universities. Each alliance receives up to €5 million from the Erasmus+ programme and up to €2 million from the Horizon 2020 programme for three years to start implementing their plans and pave the way for other higher education institutions across the EU to follow.
Funding from both programs shall strengthen interactions between the European Education Area and the European Research Area. The Commission will closely monitor progress of each alliance.
Under the next long-term EU budget for 2021-27, the Commission proposed to roll out European Universities under the Erasmus programme, in synergy with Horizon Europe and other EU instruments.
Perspective directions in education: sustainability
There are at least two main directions that perspective “EU universities” can make a difference: sustainability and the digital agenda; both are in the roadmap of EU’s strategic policies for future growth in the member state.
The success of implementing SDGs goals depends, generally, on the ability at states’ education policies to accommodate the SDGs and associated169 targets to modern sustainable growth patterns and strategies. It has to be mentioned from the start that teaching SDGs is to be partially divided among several education policies’ levels: at schools, colleagues and higher education institutions, both general and special.
Teaching and training today’s youth means provide contemporary skills to tomorrow’s policy- and economy- decision makers, with the necessary basic knowledge on modern 4th industrial revolution challenges, system-thinking on complex socio-economic problems coped with certain critical approaches.
Introducing SDGs into the national education agenda requires fundamental reassessment of existing education and teaching methods. That means that colleges and higher education institutions shall teach the necessary skills for SDGs; the teaching methods shall be adapted to needed general and professional skills for practical SDGs implementation in the transformed socio-economic policies.
See more in http://www.baltic-course.com/eng2/modern_eu/?doc=150861 as well as in “Enforcing sustainability: modern challenges and needed reforms, in:
Education’s challenges for the Baltic States
Modern educational challenges are of a double nature: a) there is a need for a more liberal-comprehensive education system, and b) the states have to provide a broad-based education at an undergraduate level before students would enter some specialized studies.
New efforts and measures are needed for promoting a globalisation-type of higher education in the Baltic States, encouraging quality, open and distance learning, as well as broader ICT use at all levels of education and training. Education system must “tailor students” for society’s needs and prepare skills for jobs that not only exist today but which are most likely to change or completely disappear; most of the present education courses and programs in the Baltic States’ universities are outdated and counterproductive.
Several institutions of higher studies in the world have implemented what is generally called a “liberal education” through an array of different disciplines that include the arts, humanities, mathematics and social sciences, suitably integrated with a deeper study of a special area of interest for students. Emergence of new general and ICT-technologies (following the outcomes of the 4th industrial revolution) has been changing the Baltic States labour market, the availability of work facilities and new skills.
Besides, perspective workplaces will demand critical thinking, communication and problem solving capabilities, as well as creativity and multidisciplinary analysis; thus, the single-skill and single-discipline jobs are likely to become automated over time.
Most probable approach in restructuring higher education could be based on a three-tier composition: the first-type institutions will focus on world-class research and high-quality teaching; the second-type – on teaching across disciplines with an important contribution to research, and the third-type institutions will be mainly colleges offering high-quality undergraduate education.
This suggestion shall cover primary, secondary and higher education structures providing access to quality, affordable and accountable education with the necessary alignment with national socio-economic policies, European and global challenges and SDGs.
The necessary changes and a wide-ranging restructuring of higher education in the Baltic States shall be aimed at promoting a “research culture” in higher education institutions; possibly, the national research foundations shall be established.
However, to streamline the process, a creation of national higher education regulatory authorities in the Baltic States would be a feasible solution. Such authorities would implement some new policy initiatives: promoting internationalization of higher education, improving the quality of open and distance learning, enhancing inclusion in education and training as well as reducing regional gaps in training and education.
A modern state shall take seriously the global challenges in preparing professionals in cutting-edge areas such as e-learning, artificial intelligence, digital technologies, 3-D printing, big data analysis, genome-studies, biotechnology, nanotechnology and neuroscience. These and other cutting-edge sciences must be woven into undergraduate education with the new and appropriate curricula and syllabus.
Science and research in universities and high schools
New impetus for postgraduate and doctoral education, as well as a major push to improve the research environment in universities shall be elaborated. For example, the masters’ degree will also have a strong research component to strengthen the appropriate professional competence in the domain area to prepare students for feasible employment.
The biggest issue in the present education system is the lack of a coherent direction for planning and implementation of research at the university level. Each member state shall have a National Research Councils, NRCs which will encompass the four broad areas of sciences: technology, social/natural sciences, arts and humanities.
Besides strengthening the presently weak support that subjects such as the social sciences and the humanities receive, NRCs will also bring in cohesion among the various research endeavors of multidisciplinary character. The NRCs will also act as a liaison among researchers, ministries of government and industry, in order to ensure that the most relevant and socially-useful research reaches the people as soon as possible.
Other proposals in education
Undergraduate level: A restructuring of undergraduate programmes including reintroduction of four-year degrees alongside three-year programmes with “multiple exit and entry points”. The four-year programme will provide for “greater rigor” and allow students to conduct optional research.
Postgraduate level: The master’s and doctoral levels to be strengthened with at least three routes into the masters degree – a one-year degree, a two-year degree and the integrated five-year degrees.
Teacher training: In a special emphasis on teacher training, the NEP notes that teacher education has been beleaguered with mediocrity as well as rampant corruption due to commercialisation. It recommends the closure of substandard and ‘dysfunctional’ teacher education institutions. Departments of education in universities, in addition to teaching, will need to be strengthened and developed as spaces for research and innovation in education.
Professional education: Postgraduate education in the professional streams needs to be strengthened considerably, according to the NEP document. The curriculum must ensure that postgraduates acquire knowledge, skills, self-confidence and entrepreneurship training, to enable them to contribute to the national socio-economic development.
These and other proposals in education can stimulate modern skills’ upgrading and strengthen innovative processes in work force training in the years to come.
Long-term professional and vocational education/training shall be available through people’s life span. All national middle- and high- education institutions shall provide valuable examples for teaching future decision-makers providing them with the necessary skills.
For example, cross-sectoral approaches to syllabus and curricular shall include cross-faculty approaches to the knowledge system when including the SDGs components into a systematic analysis. Besides, some training aspects shall be considered too: “teaching the teachers” about the SDGs requirements; developing new e-learning skills in SDGs and partnerships with other universities teaching SDGs; providing coordination among national political, economic, business, cultural and educational authorities to facilitate the SDGs state’s fulfillment obligations, as well as an exchange of positive practices.
Sustainable development has been on the agenda of universities since the Brundtland Report “Our Common Future”, published by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.
The needed dynamic reforms in national education policies are connected to the mentioned in the UN-2030 Agenda’s “triangle” in SDGs implementation: social, economic and environmental dimensions in the national growth which required adequate reflection in national education and training.
Towards active member states’ education policies
The issues connected to the SDGs implementation have vital consequences for the EU and the member states’ education policies: coordinating and supplementing “competence” for the former and efficient policies adequate to prosperous SDGs transition for the latter. It is quite notable that the Commission has been closely watching the member states’ efforts in meeting the global and European SDG targets.
National education policies are generally oriented towards two main goals: a) providing youth with the necessary knowledge in natural, social and technical spheres; and b) equipping the youth with “specific” knowledge, skills and experiences (often creating new knowledge) fitted for the constantly changing labour markets. SDGs are in the second path, though “educators” have to acquire a broad spectrum of knowledge in both, though be specifically aware of the three components in SDGs implementation: social, economic and environmental (mentioned in the first article).
Fitting into the new education challenges is not an easy task: the EU has provided educators with some hints on possible changes. According to two most probable scenarios, a huge gearing up for an “intelligent capitalism” in manufacturing/industry and services promises the disappearance of labour as a factor of production; it is advocating also massive old-skills’ disappearance too. Another scenario (a “hybrid” one) argues that future changes should involve augmented intelligence rather than autonomous learning systems (a model with human skills under control). The third scenario (a “normal” one) states that it is business as usual and that AI and intelligent systems are just another tech-hype discourse that will erode, but also create, new skills and jobs.
All three scenarios are based on models of change, but the first two recognise that there is something at work that is different from old linear industrial processes of scale and assembly, i.e. circular economies, which part of several SDGs -3, 8, 9 and 15…
More in the following Commission web-links: – EU Erasmus+ programme; – European Structural and Investment Funds, including the Youth Employment Initiative; – European Solidarity Corps, as well as in: – Horizon 2020, and –European Institute of Innovation and Technology.
Mentioned scenarios shall be kept in mind in designing new national education policies while being revised along the new tasks for the “education governance”, such as: – introducing SDGs into the national socio-economic planning structures, – developing new specializations on sustainability in the universities, – creating “model” curricular on SDGs on all level of education and training, etc.
There are two sides in the SDG educational facilities: theoretical and practical; the former provides additional SDG knowledge and cross-sectoral synergy, the latter – practical steps in introducing SDGs into national sectoral growth, e.g. in energy and construction, in transport and tourism, to name a few.
Numerous international organisation are already active in the SDGs implementation, e.g. the UN bodies (the UN SDG Academy) and mostly OECD, which provide practical guidance for the so-called “national policy coherence for sustainable development”, which includes the following main “instruments” for decision-makers in the education policies: a) improving understanding of interactions and synergies among SDGs and national growth models; b) strengthening public/private institutional mechanisms in the SDGs integrative implementation, and c) monitoring and assessing progress in SDGs policy’ coherence.
More in the OECD online policy toolkit:
Sustainability initiative in higher education
In order to occupy the mainstream in national and regional policies, the SDGs would have to become an integral part in the educational policies. Some steps in the right directions have been already made: a new initiative was adopted to create a specific “SDGs-education network” as a step in activating universities to increase their contribution towards SDGs implementation.
By sharing good practice, European and global universities will strengthen the educators’ impetus into SDGs practical implementation for sustainable development and the national growth. The initiative was inaugurated by the three global education groups: the Association of Commonwealth Universities, ACU; the Agence universitaire de la Francophone, AUF and the International Association of Universities, IAU agreed on a network to increase the contribution of universities to the SDGs implementation at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), which met online during 7-16 July, 2020. That means that already more than 2,000 different universities globally are already in the network!
For example, IAU has 17 universities (according to 17 SDGs) each working with 11 other universities all over the world; in this regard, the IAU has developed a global cluster on sustainable development to focus on international cooperation to “look at all the dynamics required to apply to each SDG”. There is a need to create a bridge from school to university or college through a tertiary education, for example.
More in: https://www.iau-hesd.net/
Academic professionals see the network “Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, HESI” as an important step in global cooperation around the “teaching SDGs” idea. The three educational organisations representing the Anglo-Saxon, Francophone and international universities’ association are seeking to consolidate higher education’s role in implementing SDGs, in creating new sustainable knowledge and innovation, in developing a generations of new leaders and skilled professionals who will implement SDGs ideas and concepts for the benefit of progressive socio-economic development in countries around the world.
More on the HESI and the Association of Commonwealth Universities opinion in:
Danish EII is particularly glad about the HESI, as finally –since the SDGs was agreed on at the end of 2015 – the idea of “teaching SDGs” has been taken seriously by the global education facilities, as well as in our institute in particular. As a member of both the global and Northern European SDSN groups, the EII participants constantly pushing forward the “teaching SDGs” project (while teaching SDGs implementation at the bachelor and master’s levels). To the satisfaction of us all teaching SDGs, with the HESI Europeans at least have an “umbrella-organisation” that will, hopefully, start doing something positive.
Including sustainability and circular economy issues into the states’ education and training policies can play a decisive role in helping every state to implement SDGs’ agendas: that could be the main drive and outcome of the HESI’s activity. However, only the time can tell how these activities would really help the states’ decision-makers in a noble task to implement SDGs!
There are about 1,8 million researchers working in thousands of European universities, science centers and in industries. By working together across borders, sectors and disciplines, the member states can push the boundaries of science towards developing practical SDGs applications.
Teachers are the most important resource in modern education processes; suffice it to say that in most countries, teachers’ salaries and expenses represent the greatest share of expenditure in education. This “investment in teachers” is having significant returns: research shows that being taught by the best teachers can make a real difference in the learning systems and in the life’s outcomes compared to otherwise similar occasions.
According to global Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), teachers are not “interchangeable workers” in a kind of industrial assembly line; individual teachers can change lives – and better teachers are crucial to improving the education that schools provide.
Improving the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of schooling depends, in large measure, on ensuring that competent people want to work as teachers and that their teaching is of high quality. The TALIS report, building on data from the Indicators of Education Systems (INES) program and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), explores three teacher-policy questions concerning: a) best-performing countries to select, evaluate and compensate teachers; b) equity of education systems, and c) means to attract and retain talented men and women to teaching.
Teaching sustainability is challenging because of the interdisciplinary nature of the SDG problems: by the essence of sustainability, the teaching process requires both cross-sectoral and holistic knowledge which is not presently taught in the universities. Thus, when teaching sustainability, instructors are often facing the need to dwell into uncharted waters of other scientific fields – natural, technical and social. Hence, ways to build sustainability’s qualification need interdisciplinary approach.
As soon as sustainable growth becomes a critically urgent concept in the states’ governance theories, on the win-win situation shall be economically feasible approaches and solutions. However, most of the educators/teachers are still in the linear market economy practice, which do not allow for revolutionary approaches to modern SDGs.
Presently, the new forms of teaching and learning are necessary that can help students deal better with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, with new values and moral dilemmas; in line with the breaking the “business-as-usual” approach; the SDGs are going to challenge the “education-as-usual” concept.
New approaches to SDGs-learning/teaching are no longer an option, it’s a must. It is a “journey together”, so-called new “social contract”: to making living places healthy (in a modern meaning, sustainable), with growth perspectives only through circular and bio-economies, and political guidance only through global climate goals. The task is difficult but not impossible: all that could be done using most advanced science, technology and innovation with regard to welfare conditions for present and future generations.
It is obvious that present development sectors in most states are not sustainable: hence, each region, country and community has to make their own SDG-strategies. However, teaching SDGs shall have some common denominators: e.g. in energy sector -on renewable energy and energy efficiency, in transport sector – on non-polluting transportation means, in economics –on sustainable development and circular economy, etc. with learning by good examples, which is of paramount importance.
Teaching SDGs is entering universities in various ways: as a rule, through already existing departments and faculties, i.e. just adding “sustainability” to their titles with introduction of general-type SDG courses for B.Sc. and M.Sc. levels geared for the faculty’s business and social studies. So far, in most of the EU states the B.Sc. is mainly awarded in the areas of natural sciences, humanities, business sciences, engineering sciences, mathematics and informatics. Thus, SDGs have to find their ways into existing bachelor or/and master studies.
However, Denmark seems to be in the forefront of SDG studies: Southern Danish University, SDU will start in 2020 M.Sc. studies in all 17 SDGs. “This is not just a project or strategy; it represents the SDU’s fundamental transformation”, acknowledges the SDU’s website.
The success of implementing SDGs depends, first of all, on the ability at states’ education policies to accommodate the 17 SDGs and 169 targets within the modern educational challenges. Teaching SDGs is partially divided among several education policies’ levels: schools, colleagues, higher education institutions. Teaching and training today’s youth means provide contemporary skills to tomorrow’s policy- and economy- decision makers, providing them with necessary basic and specific knowledge on SDGs components in modernized national structural policies.
Higher education institutions in the states shall teach the necessary skills for implementing SDGs providing students with the needed general and professional skills; long-term professional and vocational education/training shall be available through people’s life span. More important is that high- education institutions shall provide future decision-makers with valuable tools and necessary skills to “govern and manage SDGs”.
Teachers education is already a priority in Unesco, which is an example for the national education community; within its special work programme on education, the Unesco’s Commission on Sustainable Development has made a significant effort to help teachers worldwide not only to understand sustainable development concepts and issues but also to learn how to cope with interdisciplinary, values-laden subjects in established curricula.
Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future is UNESCO’s response to that challenge, and a major contribution to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, September 2002). By making the program available as both a web site and a CDROM, UNESCO hopes to reach as many teachers as possible across the world. The programme can be used as it is, or in any adapted form to local, national or regional needs.
Note: Some recent publications on SDGs and education issues:
– Supporting sustainability: EU’s financial innovation. February 2019. In:
– European dimension in education: perspectives for Latvia. March 2019.
– Education and science in the Baltics’ future. March 2019.
– Tackling Latvian economy and sustainability: OECD’s assessment. June 2019.
– SDGs in the EU: monitoring progress. July 2019.
– Teaching sustainability: new global initiative. July 2019.
Supplement (TFEU, Article 165)on EU’s education policy
- The Union shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity. The Union shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues, while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function.
- Union action shall be aimed at:
- developing the European dimension in education, particularly through the teaching and dissemination of the languages of the Member States,
- encouraging mobility of students and teachers, by encouraging inter alia, the academic recognition of diplomas and periods of study,
- promoting cooperation between educational establishments,
- developing exchanges of information and experience on issues common to the education systems of the Member States,
- encouraging the development of youth exchanges and of exchanges of socio-educational instructors, and encouraging the participation of young people in democratic life in Europe,
- encouraging the development of distance education, etc.