Towards European “education union”: strategy for universities (part IV)

The process of a newly forming European “education union” is full of resolute efforts aimed at coordinating and supplementing member states’ education policies. Among these efforts there is a focal one: creating a “unified” European Education Area (expected for completion by 2025) to serve as a vital driver in harnessing socio-economic progress and employment in the EU states. Besides, the particular role of universities and their alliances in addressing modern social and education challenges is emphasized. 

Part fourth in the series of articles on modern education revolution reveals the EU’s intensive efforts to streamline the states’ educational policies as an important political-economy’s instrument in the European regional integration.
Some links to the previous articles: https://www.integrin.dk/2022/02/12/education-revolution-introducing-sustainability-in-modern-political-economy-part-iii-i/; and https://www.integrin.dk/2022/02/14/education-revolution-sustainability-in-the-eu-states-education-policies-part-iii-ii/.

The higher education sector plays an essential role in the EU’s perspective integration; in particular in the European post-pandemic recovery period and in shaping sustainable and resilient socio-economic development. Excellent universities provide good foundation not only for democratic societies, but also for sustainable growth, entrepreneurship and employment.
As soon as skills’ availability is rapidly evolving, the higher education sector needs adaptation: thus, the EU’s twin transition (i.e. green and digital) requires future-proof education, research and innovation in close cooperation with national industrial and manufacturing sectors.
Therefore students and workers in EU-27 have to be equipped with the new “green and digital skills” for the “future of work”; as soon as existing universities’ innovation and technological potential shall be used to adequately tackle related societal and development challenges. Consequently, the European growth targets in these spheres are: by 2030, at least 45% of 25-34 year-olds shall obtain tertiary level attainment, and at least 60% of adults participate in learning (over the previous 12 months) by 2030. For example, the EU’s “digital decade” sets ambitious targets, aiming at 80% of people will have at least basic digital skills and 20 million ICT specialists shall be employable by 2030.
Presently, diverse and flourishing higher education sector in the EU-27 is home to about 5 000 higher education institutions, 17.5 million tertiary education students, 1.35 million people teaching in tertiary education and 1.17 million researchers.

Note. The term “university” is used in the EU context as a reference to the broader education spectrum, representing all areas of tertiary education, with all types of higher education institutions, such as research universities, university colleges, universities of applied sciences, higher vocational education and training institutions, as well as higher arts institutions. Data from: Eurostat’s https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Tertiary_education_statistics; and Eurostat, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/tsc00003/default/table?lang=en.
More on the issue in the following sources: – the Council Resolution on a strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training towards the European Education Area and beyond (2021-2030), Official Journal C 66, 26.2.2021, p. 1–21; – Communication on the EU strategy for universities, SWD (2022) 6 final, adopted in Strasbourg (January 18, 2022); and -Survey EUA, International strategic institutional partnerships and the European Universities Initiative, April (2020), p 26.

The diversity of different types of higher education institutions in the EU represents the strength of European way of acquiring knowledge and provides education quality; it allows for choice, creativity and synergy through mobility and cooperation. The Europe system of higher education, with its 35 years of life-changing experiences, provides education and training for more than 10 million young learners, in part supported presently by the famous Erasmus+ program.

The European “education union”: some historic and modern steps
The concept of “education union” has been historically restricted by the EU-member states’ supplementing competences in educational spheres with the solid states’ independence. However, strengthening European identity and apparent progress in the EU higher education cooperation during last two decades (since the Bologna process), have been serving as integral components of the “education union”. It has to be noted the escalating process of creating sectoral “unions” within the EU socio-economic integration, like energy, digital, innovation, etc.; the present education union has a specific place within this trend, i.e. to substitute the restricted Treaties’ legal clause on member states’ independence in education and culture issues.
Some radical steps towards the “education union” have been visualized in the Commission’s communication on strengthening European identity through education and culture (November 2017). Since then, the EU’s idea of European Education Area by 2025 heralded new “union” as a vital instrument in harnessing full potential of education in job creation, economic growth, social fairness, as well as in experiencing full diversity of European identity.
More in Commission press release: “Future of Europe: towards a European Education Area by 2025”: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-4521_en.htm

Following the Gothenburg summit recommendations (November 2017), the Commission proposed new education policy’s initiatives in January 2018 with the aim of reducing socio-economic inequalities among the states, sustaining competitiveness and creating more united and democratic European Union. Among purely educational initiatives there were the following:
= Recommendations on key competences for lifelong learning to improve the development of key competences of people of all ages throughout their lives and to provide guidance to the states on the objective’s optimal achievement. Particular focus shall be placed on promoting among the states “entrepreneurial spirit” driving youth’s innovation-oriented mind-sets in order to unlock citizens’ personal creativity and self-initiative potential.
More on “key competences” in the Council’s COM (2018) 24 final in: https://ec.europa.eu/education/sites/education/files/recommendation-key-competences-lifelong-learning.pdf
= Digital education action plan outlining the EU measures to help educational institutions, training systems and citizens in the member states better adapt to life and work in an age of rapid digital changes. However, it is not yet clear what function education will serve in the era of final automation once the vocational justification for it is removed. Indeed, it is still contemplating the issues of purpose and function of higher education at the “age of final automation”, once “labour” as a set of processes and socio-political category would disappear.
= Recommendation on common European values in education, to be included in the member states education and teaching policies in order to help young people understand the importance of European values in member states’ education and culture. The EU Treaties (art. 2 TFEU) on the European “common values” specify the process of strengthening European social cohesion while contributing to combating populism, disunity, xenophobia and divisive nationalism.
The Commission’s further initiatives during 2018-19, included proposals on the mutual recognition of diplomas, language learning, a quality framework for early childhood education and care, a European Agenda for Culture, new EU Youth Strategy, etc. The EU member states have to make efforts towards doubling the number of young people participating in the EU’s Erasmus+ program by 2025, the efforts supported by the EU’s long-term budget of €29.4 billion for the period of 2021-27.
General source: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-388_en.htm.

Furthermore, the EU institutions are working actively on creating a network of European universities alliances, on a new EU student card (the latter will make studying in another EU country easier than ever before) and on other initiatives discussed by the member states’ education ministers at the second European Education Summit at the end of 2019.
More information on EU education policy in the following web sites: – European Education Summit website; – New measures to boost key competences and digital skills, as well as the European dimension of education; – Factsheet on the European Education Area; – Factsheet on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning; – Factsheet on the Digital Education Action Plan; – Factsheet on promoting common values, inclusive education, and the European dimension of teaching; – Communication on Strengthening European Identity through Education and Culture; – Education & Training Monitor 2017.

Since the end of 2016, in line with the focal program “Investing in Europe’s Youth”, the Commission adopted active measures within the European “youth initiative” dealing with improving and modernising education processes, the measures in which the Commission envisaged a series of actions to help the states improving quality education for young people. Thus, e.g. youth between the ages of 18 and 30 can sign up for finding new opportunities across EU-27, gaining invaluable experience and acquire valuable skills at the start of their career. The Commission also presented a series of measures to boost youth employment, improve and modernise education, more investment in skills of young people, and better opportunities to learn and study abroad.
More in: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-4165_en.htm; on improving education, in: http://ec.europa.eu/education/education-in-the-eu/about-education-initiatives_en.

Universities in the EU’s education strategy
The European strategy for universities aims at supporting and enabling universities to adapt to changing conditions, to thrive and to contribute to Europe’s resilience and recovery. Thus, the European Universities initiative is to “bridge” such spheres as higher education, research and innovation to pave the way for a new dimension in European higher education, i.e. the education union. Universities have a unique position at the crossroads of education, research, innovation, serving society and economy: they play a critical role not only in achieving the European Education Area (EEA) and the European Research Area (ERA), but also in synergy with the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Through cumulative aspects of education systems and research networks, universities in the member states are functioning as a vital governance instrument in promoting European values and specific model of integration, in safeguarding the rule of law, human rights and European quality of life.
Initial approaches to a “revised” higher education strategy date back to 2011; although only in the beginning of 2018, the Commission in its communication revealed EU-27 “common plans” with four key education areas: – ensuring graduates leave higher education with the skills the modern national economy need; – building inclusive higher education systems; -making sure higher education institutions contribute to innovation in the sustainable national economy; and -supporting higher education institutions and governments in making the best use of available human and financial resources.
The EU’s analysis underlined in 2011 that “Europe was no longer setting the pace in the global race for knowledge and talent”; i.e. emerging economies were rapidly increasing their investment in higher education. While about 35% of all jobs in the EU presently require high-level qualifications, only 26% of the workforce currently has a higher education qualification.
Thus, the EU still lags behind in the share of researchers in the total labour force: 6 per 100, compared to 9 in the US and 11 in Japan. The knowledge economy needs people with the right mix of skills: e.g. in transversal competences, e-skills for the digital era, creativity, flexibility and a solid understanding of the chosen fields, such as in science, technology, engineering and math. However, public and private employers, including in research intensive sectors, increasingly report mismatches and difficulties in finding the right people for their evolving needs”.
More on the “modernisation agenda” in the Commission Communication “Supporting growth and jobs: agenda for the modernisation of Europe’s higher education systems” COM/2011/0567 final in: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:52011DC0567

To ensure that higher education can help boost growth and job creation, universities need to tailor curricula to current and anticipated needs of the economy and society; prospective students need updated, modern and solid information to decide what courses to choose.
With this in mind, the Commission presented a proposal on “graduate tracking”, as part of the new “skills agenda for Europe”, which also covers graduates from VET programs in addition to higher education graduates. This will encourage and support the state authorities to improve the quality and availability of information on how the graduates progress in their careers or further education after finishing their studies.
More on “skills agenda” in: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-2039_en.htm
Additional information in the following web-links: – MEMO/17/1402- Questions and answers;
– Factsheet on schools development; – Factsheet on modernisation of higher education;
More information in Communication and Commission staff working documents: – on school policy in: http://ec.europa.eu/education/policy/school_en; – on higher education policy in: http://ec.europa.eu/education/policy/higher-education_en; – generally, in Commission press release at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-1401_en.htm

The “European University’s” concept in the education union
EU’s recommendation on promoting “European shared values in inclusive education” and the European dimension of teaching (2018) provided fresh impetus to dealing with new education challenges. As to the EU’s involvement in high education in the states, the Union institutions mainly help to stimulate public investment and support education policy’s priorities. Thus, European inter-university cooperation (and campuses) would be acting as role models using: a) automatic mutual recognition of studies and diplomas; b) introducing European Student Cards; and c) fostering Bologna process. In this regard, the “European Universities” will contribute to the sustainable economic development of the regions where they are located, as their students will work closely with companies, municipal authorities, academics and researchers to find solutions to main regional challenges.
Reference to: https://ec.europa.eu/education/sites/education/files/document-library-docs/european-universities-info-session.pdf

Arranging consortiums of “European universities” shall be specifically mentioned: selection of such university-type has been made out of a broad range of higher education institutions in the EU: i.e. from comprehensive and research-intensive universities, to schools of applied sciences, technical universities and universities of fine arts. Such consortiums intend to be the inter-university campuses around which students, doctoral candidates, staff and researchers can move freely while pooling their expertise, platforms and resources to deliver joint curricula or modules covering various disciplines. Curricula for example will be very flexible and will allow students to personalise their education, choosing what, where and when to study and get a European degree.
So-called “European Universities” idea contributes to sustainable economic development of the regions where they are located, as their students will work closely with companies, municipal authorities, academics and researchers to find solutions to the challenges their regions are facing. The first calls launched in 2018-19 tested different models to implement the new concept of “European Universities” and their potential in boosting higher education. In the new long-term EU budget for 2021-2027, the concept of European Universities is included under Erasmus+ program, with a significantly increased budget. While some alliances are comprehensive and cover all disciplines, others are for example focusing on urban coastal sustainability, social sciences, twin transition, and public health. Each alliance is composed (on average) of about seven higher education institutions from all parts of Europe; new partnerships will reflect the “interest” in cooperation from all EU states.
Looking at the history and perspectives of the “universities’ consortium-idea”, it has to be noted that the member states fully supported the “continental move in education”: the EU initiative was to increase education quality and support cooperation which was endorsed by the European Council at the end of 2017. The EU-wide “quality education” was aimed at uniting initially at least 20 European universities to push forward the establishing of a European Education Area by 2025. The concept of the “European Universities” attracted initially applications from 54 education “alliances” involving more than 300 higher education institutions from the then 28 EU states and other Erasmus+ program countries, which replied to an Erasmus+ call on “European Universities” launched in October 2018.
Thus, the “European Universities” represent a set of transnational alliances of higher education institutions aimed at developing long-term structural and strategic cooperation. A key criterion includes minimum of 3 higher education institutions from at least 3 EU states or from other countries within Erasmus program (presently the number of participants is around 7-8). There are some key cooperation principles: e.g. alliances need a joint long-term strategy for education with, where possible, links to research and innovation to drive systemic, structural and sustainable impact at all levels of their institutions. The first pull resulted in creating initial 17 “European Universities” (out of 54 applications) which would act as a role model for other high schools across the EU. They will enable the next generations of students to experience Europe by studying in different countries and change higher education in Europe while boosting excellence, competitiveness and inclusion.
The alliances could include partners from all types of higher education institution and cover a broad geographic scope across Europe; they are being based on a common long-term strategy focused on sustainability, excellence and European values; by offering student-centered curricula jointly delivered across inter-university campuses, where diverse student bodies can build their own programmes and experience mobility at all levels of study; and they adopt a challenge-based approach according to which students, academics and external partners can cooperate in inter-disciplinary teams to tackle the biggest issues presently facing EU-27.
Source: https://education.ec.europa.eu/education-levels/higher-education/european-universities.

The EU higher education initiative (including the “European Universities” alliance) are aimed at enhancing the quality and attractiveness of European higher education and boosting cooperation among governance, education providers in the states, students and staff. Besides, the initiative is to increase education quality and support cooperation; thus, initially, about 20 European universities were eager to establishing the European Education Area in which “European Universities” concept attracted applications from 54 alliances involving more than 300 higher education institutions from EU-27 and other Erasmus+ program countries (the first Erasmus+ call on “European Universities” was launched in October 2018). By mid-July 2020, out of 62 applications received, 24 additional European Universities’ alliances were selected involving 165 higher education institutions from the EU-26 states and other countries participating in the Erasmus+ program.
References to: EUA and Science Europe, April 2019: European Universities Initiative in Education and Training in https://education.ec.europa.eu/education-levels/higher-education/european-universities.

The EU’s ideas of achieving the European High Education Area (EHEA) and creating new European Research Area (ERA) by 2025 was actually adopted at the end of 2020 aimed at “stronger synergies and interconnections between the ERA, the EHEA and the higher education related elements of the European education area”. Already in February 2021, within the “strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training towards the European Education Area and beyond during 2021-2030” an agenda for higher education transformation as a concrete action in the priority area of higher education was established.
The ERA Policy Agenda annexed to the Council Conclusions on the “Future Governance of the European Research Area” (November 2021), supported actions relevant for universities including a dedicated action on empowering higher education institutions to develop in line with the European Research Area and in synergy with the European Education Area.
More information in: =Commission Communication on a European strategy for universities; = Commission Proposal for a Council recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation; = Communication on achieving a European Education Area by 2025; = Communication on a new ERA for Research and Innovation

Universities’ alliances have created the EU-wide inter-university “campuses” with the following competences:
= students, staff and researchers enjoy seamless mobility (physical, virtual or mixed) to study, train, teach, do research work or share services with cooperating partner institutions;
= trans-disciplinary and transnational teams of students, academics and external stakeholders tackle big issues facing Europe, e.g. climate protection, sustainability, public health, big data and digitalization, migration, etc.;
= students can design their own flexible curricula, leading to a European Degree;
= practical and/or work-based experience is provided to foster an entrepreneurial mind-set and develop civic engagement;
= the student councils have to reflect the social, economic and cultural diversity of the European population; and where cooperating partners in alliance are coming from different parts of the European continent (not only from the EU-27).

Alliances’ examples
With its European Universities initiative, the European Commission aims at fostering excellence, innovation and inclusion in higher education across Europe, accelerating the transformation of higher education institutions into the universities of the future with structural, systemic and sustainable impact.
For example, participation of the three Baltic States’ universities in the EU-wide high-education integration has shown that five universities from three states have already been adopted as partners in the “European University” concept:
= in the ECIUn/Technology and engineering group, among 12 other European universities was Lithuanian Kauno Technologijos Universitetas;
= in EU4Art group (Alliance for common fine arts curriculum), among 4 European high schools was Latvijas Makslas Academija (Latvia);
= in the FORTHEM group (Fostering Outreach within European Regions, Transnational Higher Education and Mobility), among 7 other universities were: Latvijas Universitate, LV;
= in ARQUS group (European University Alliance), among 7 others there were Vilniaus Universitetas, LT; and
= in the CONEXUS group (European University for Smart Urban Coastal Sustainability), among 5 other high schools there was Klaipedos Universitetas, LT.
The €60 million originally was set aside from the EU budget for the new Erasmus+ initiative; additional € 85 million has been supplied afterwards to allow for sufficient funding for 17 initial “university alliances” in addition to further 24 new alliances and participating partners.

Note. European Civic University alliance (CIVIS) represent a far-reaching vision with a significant impact on both the EU and the states’ socio-economic development by implementing educational and research activities through existing challenges. It aims to elaborate strategies in education, science and innovation in the following areas: public health; cities, territories and mobility; climate change; environment and energy; digital and technological transformations; societies, culture and heritage.
There are 8 founding states and 9 associates in CIVIS: Aix-Marseille University, France; National Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece; Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; Universitatea din Bucareşti, Romania; Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain; Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy; Stockholms universitet, Sweden; Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Germany.
CIVIS is an ambitious European University Alliance with a strong governance structure supported by inter-university cooperation. By stimulating educational innovation, CIVIS contributes to accelerating the digital transformation in high schools by pooling scientists and stimulating new joint initiatives, forging fruitful interactions and knowledge-skills-creation cooperation with citizens, enterprises, social and cultural associations.
References and source: https://ec.europa.eu/education/sites/education/files/document-library-docs/european-universities-factsheet-civis.pdf. Additional reading: Eteris E. Teachers in education and training: creating European Education Area. In: http://www.baltic-course.com/eng2/modern_eu/?doc=151657&ins_print

New strategy for higher education cooperation and the long-term EU reforms are aimed at making European education providers to be at the “global top table for education, research and innovation”, together with other leading countries, like China and the United States. However, some barriers to optimal cooperation do exist: thus, in January 2022, the European University Association, EUA hosted an online discussion among 1,800 participants from 78 countries to reveal problems and suggest solutions in implementing the EU novel education strategy.
The president of European University Association, Michael Murphy, warned that European universities were “still combating unnecessary barriers to collaboration” due to varying degrees of autonomy and uneven levels of public investment in different EU member states.
Reference and source: https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20220131084603578.

All “European university” alliances, serving as a cross-border facility and “a game changer” in bringing together European universities, were sharing the same values and ambitions. However, some alliances, e.g. the “Una Europa alliance” (one of the first 17 pilots launched several years ago uniting presently 50,000 students in nine countries) despite hard efforts in creating innovative, multilingual and interdisciplinary courses and programs have encountered barriers and boundaries. Joint bachelor degree in European studies was one main challenge: it is problematic presently to award a degree simultaneously with all partner institutions in numerous university alliances; quite strict regulations in some countries prevent progress in creating interdisciplinary programs; another big issue is common interdisciplinary programs.
Therefore, among recent EUA’s recommendations are: – the EU states have to give more autonomy to their higher education institutions in the context of transnational education over admission and enrolment criteria; – more autonomy to be granted over the language of instruction and sharing online learning together with more flexible learning pathways; – support shall be provided for quality virtual learning; – trust for quality assurance mechanism and fostering institutional quality assurance shall be strengthened; – facilitating accrediting process for both programs and education providing institutions (by move from a separate program/institutional accreditation) and for joint degrees.
These recommendations are in line with the UNESCO study (2020–21) in examining the “futures of education-2050”; thus, while fears of a global digital divide abound, the study showed that technology could have a positive impact on inclusion and accessibility in education. Thus, an equilibrium must be reached where students are also able to learn by real experiences, human interaction and physical expression, without relying heavily on digital tools.
Students and educators talked about restructured university degrees that would consequently lead to changes in curriculum content as well as forms of academic mobility. Students trust that virtual forms of mobility will be equally beneficial for intercultural exchange and understanding. It is essential to “re-configure the role of the teacher” who, in addition to preserving his/her role as a specialist, must assume more the role of a tutor, mediator, facilitator and motivator.
Reference to: https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=2022012509225275; more in: https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/

Recent coordination measures in European Education Area
The Commission in September 2020 proposed to consolidate ongoing efforts and further develop the European Education Area along six dimensions: 1. Education quality with mastering of basic skills, incl. digital competences as a prerequisite to thrive in life, to find fulfilling jobs and to become engaged citizens; fostering language learning and multilingualism. 2. Inclusion and gender equality. 3. Green and digital transitions (education actions should be geared towards changing people behavior, boosting skills for the green economy, fostering new sustainable education and training infrastructure and renovating existing buildings (‘renovation wave’), thereby creating conducive environments for these changes. 4. Teachers and trainers, with a vision for the education profession within the European Education Area as a highly competent and motivated cohort of educators who can benefit from a range of support and professional development opportunities throughout their varied career. 5. Student and staff mobility in progressively opened higher education (higher education institutions are the central actors of the “knowledge square”: education, research, innovation and service to society, playing a key role in the states’ recovery, resilience and sustainable development). 6. Geopolitical dimension and geopolitical aspects in education; collaboration between education institutions both within and outside the Union helps to attract the best talent worldwide, and to promote peer learning and joint international research and innovation projects.
Efforts to establish the European Education Area will work in synergy with the European Skills Agenda, the renewed VET policy and the European Research Area to harness knowledge, making it the foundation of Europe’s recovery and prosperity, based on shared principles of inclusion, mobility and innovation.

Note. The Commission efforts to launch Erasmus Teacher Academies within the new Erasmus Programme in 2021 were aimed at creating “networks of teacher education institutions and teacher associations”. Over time, the Academies will create communities of practice, notably on initial teacher education and continuous professional development to inform national and European teacher education policies and support innovation in teachers’ practice. These networks will provide teachers and students with learning opportunities on pedagogical matters of common concern. Dedicated modules will address issues such as engaging in dialogue with society, education for sustainable development, or teaching in multilingual classrooms. The Erasmus Teacher Academies will take advantage of structural partnerships and joint programmes between institutions and other teacher education providers and associations, with cross-border training and learning as a regular feature. 25 Erasmus teacher academies should be developed by 2025.
More in Communication on the EU education area (2020) in: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52020DC0625

The Commission suggestions revealed in January 2022 include two main proposals: a) creating a European strategy for universities, and b) establishing effective European higher education cooperation. These proposals are aimed at introducing the following vital issues in the states’ education policies in the coming years: first, higher education sector must be an active “partner” in the EU’s complex socio-economic transformation; second, the EU’s education shall be active in the world and ready to fully participate in Europe’s renaissance, the process that requires certain reforms in universities. Third important point is increased funding: never before the EU had so many financial resources dedicated to higher education; the Commission alone will provide €80 billion over the period 2021-2027.
Reference to: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/speech_22_411

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