Modernising European higher education (part I)

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The EU provides states with both advice and support for high quality and inclusive education. These efforts are aimed at giving students urgently needed knowledge and skills for adequate response to new challenges affected by globalisation and technological change. These challenges are to be incorporated into national education policies in order to tackle the needs of the perspective labour market’s requirements and sustainable growth. 

Analysis of the present situation in educational modernisation consists of two articles: the first one analysis the national efforts in educational transformations with some scenarios for perspectives and reflection on EU’s cooperative initiative in the EU-wide quality education; the second one –deals with the EU-wide cooperative efforts in higher education.

Human capital is one of the main European competitive advantages. Besides, high quality education accessible to all is essential for the future of Europe: it is a key to helping young people stand strong in life. Modernisation of education spans from early childhood education and care, through school and onto higher and vocational education as well as training, laying the foundation for continued learning throughout a person’s life.
Thus, good education lays the foundation for personal development and active citizenship. It is the starting point for a successful professional career and the best protection against unemployment and poverty. To make the integration process flourish, all the EU member states need high-quality education systems. New EU initiatives will help the states and the education providers take the steps needed to improve opportunities for all young people in Europe.

Modernisation agenda
EU-wide higher education and research sectors in many universities are concentrated on optimal performance in their core missions, such as learning and teaching, quality assurance and research. Some pursue their own national priorities in developing perspective sectors by using EU programs and funding by concentrating on closer links between universities and corporate sectors in such areas as sustainable development, circular economy, energy and transport issues, digitalization, etc.
EU higher education strategy dates back to a “modernisation agenda” of 2011; however, only in 2018 the Commission set out plans for four key education areas (mainly affected by the UN-2030 Agenda and SDGs): 1. Ensuring graduates leave higher education with the skill sets they and the modern economy need; 2. Building inclusive higher education systems; 3. Making sure higher education institutions contribute to innovation in circular and sustainable economy; and 4. Supporting higher education institutions and governments in making the best use of available human and financial resources.
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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, as well as to take into consideration perspective students needs in quality education. With this in mind, the Commission drafted Council Recommendation on graduate tracking, as part of the new “skills agenda for Europe”, which would also cover graduates from vocational education and training 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. The Commission also proposed a budget for next years with a legal base for the European Solidarity Corps.
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Possible growth scenarios and education
Future is very hard to predict; particular, it makes very difficult to formulate a feasible public policy as an answer to European challenges. Present EU member states’ governance is at a difficult historic moment – unlike any other in history – indicating the end of the “theoretical principle of the infinite substitution of labour capital” with the arrival of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and digitalisation. All these features are going to transform traditional labour processes in factories and businesses, offices and university’s education and research.
According to one scenario, a huge gearing up for ‘intelligent capitalism’ in manufacturing and services promises the disappearance of labour as a factor of production; that theory is advocating the skills and jobs’ disappearance, i.e. “joblessness”.
Another scenario (a “hybrid” one) argues that in “changing the future” national governance should go for augmented intelligence rather than autonomous learning systems, which will provide a hybrid model with human beings firmly in control.
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.
All three scenarios are based on the “models of change”, but the first two recognise that there is something to work on which is different from the old linear-type industrial processes of scale and assembly.
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If either the first or second scenarios are more likely to be correct, the states are facing serious problems, in particular in central and Eastern Europe that during last three decades were building new capital-labour force strategy including: a) parliamentary democracy representing some dominant political parties, and b) new mechanisms of “tripartite-labor-negotiations” to include businesses, trade unions and the government.
For example, one of the OECD Automation Policy Brief in 2018 confirmed that 14% of jobs would be automated and another 32% will face substantial change in how they are carried out; young people will find it harder to enter the labour market and, while jobs in manufacturing and agriculture face greater risk of automation, others are not immune to change.
The greatest risk is to low-skill routine jobs, although education and training will not offset the risks of automation. The ‘joblessness’ scenario is a frightening one, especially for young people who will increasingly find growing competition for a decreasing pool of available jobs with higher entry qualifications and conditions, and lower wages. The future of work in this scenario looks bleak even if decision-makers admit that the process is not one of the simple elimination of jobs through increasingly sophisticated automation and the application of intelligent systems to the world of work.
It is not clear what function education will serve in the era of final automation once the vocational justification for it is removed. Indeed, the purpose and function of higher education in the age of final automation seems dubious once labour as a set of processes and as a political category disappears.
More information in the following Commission’s web-links: the Erasmus+ programme; European Structural and Investment Funds, including the Youth Employment Initiative; European Solidarity Corps, as well as Horizon 2020, and European Institute of Innovation and Technology.
On European university initiative:

Perspectives of European education alliances
To overcome main problems in European educational integration, which are generally associated with almost autonomous status of national education policies and regulations, the EU institutions (according to the EU basic law) have three key actions: to supplement, support and coordinate the member states educational governance.
During last two decades, the EU experimented with numerous actions to “force” member states into cooperative stances: one of the recent endeavors have been the idea of “European Universities” (so-called EUI) and financial support for more active and closer coordination among the member states’ universities. The latter was realised through the so-called “alliances” of universities (generally by five to seven-eight members and up to 12) united around cross-sectoral and inter-disciplinary programs, as well as around educational quality assurance.
The European Commission’s initiative to increase education quality and support cooperation among the states was endorsed by the European Council in December 2017; it was aimed at uniting at least 20 European universities to push forward the establishing of a European Education Area by 2025. Initially, the concept of “European Universities” attracted applications from 54 partners involving more than 300 higher education institutions from all EU states and other Erasmus+ Program countries; the first Erasmus+ call on “European Universities” was launched in October 2018.
The first pull of 17 so-called “European Universities” (out of 54 applications) was aimed to play as a role model for other high schools across the EU to enable the next generations of students to experience Europe by studying in different countries and progressing higher education in Europe while boosting excellence, competitiveness and inclusion.
In May 2021 the European Council reiterated the support for the European Universities in achieving “…ambitious vision of an innovative, globally competitive and attractive European Education Area and European Research Area, in full synergy with the European higher education area, by helping to boost the excellence dimension of higher education, research and innovation, while promoting inclusiveness, equity and allowing for seamless and ambitious transnational cooperation between higher education institutions in Europe, and inspiring the transformation of higher education”. In this way the European Universities Initiative (EUI) has become an integral part of the EU’s ambitious strategy to create an effective European Education Area and quality education among EU-28.

Examples of alliances
= Una Europa alliance comprises the following EU universities : Freie Universität Berlin, Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna, University of Edinburgh, Uniwersytet Jagielloski w Krakowie (Poland), KU Leuven (Belgium), Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and University of Helsinki.
Aligning with member universities’ strategies is a key for the optimal alliance’s management; hence the success of any alliance depends on a thriving community of academics, professionals and students involved. Thus, an optimal balance between the “top-down steering” and the “bottom-up engagement” is crucial for alliances’ success; besides, it is paramount to create maximum flexibility at all levels to adapt quickly to new European challenges.
Another example – the UNIC alliance (European University of Post-Industrial Cities), which brings together eight EU’s universities involved in societal impact, inclusion and mobility. As soon as there is not a single model for building a “European University”, the UNIC is exploring more organic, innovative and tailor-made solutions to working together towards the future of the European Education and Research Area.
The concept of a truly “European University” requires creative and compromising approaches to traditional university leadership and management. For example, for a student-centered alliance, called EUTOPIA, it is vital that students are represented in all governance bodies at all levels. Additionally, the students have their own EUTOPIA Student Council and have taken the initiative to set up the EUTOPIA Student Think Tank. Thus, the officials of the EUTOPIA alliance insist that flexibility is an important factor; EUTOPIA has changed significantly from an initial set-up in 2019 to become bigger and more complex with an adapted governance structures. By combining the governance and management structures in an alliance, it is important to ensure engagement of all communities including external partners.
However, modernization’s perspectives need to balance between the original EUI’s vision, the rules and regulations of the Erasmus+ program, as well as views on educational governance and the diversity of national rules and regulations.
The modernisation process, most probably, will result in a diverse range of alliances and related education governance structures; however, these alliances have to focus on both the short-term EU’s funding and the long-term EUI’s vision. But the “interests” of participants in each alliance are different: the Commission focuses on the long-term goals while the states – more on related governance structures in the short-term aspects. No doubt, the EUI is an extremely important project to modernise European universities, but considering the educational diversity in Europe it is important to formulate the right priorities: if the EUI imposes too many conditions there is a risk the initiative will only be suitable for a limited number of European universities.
Source: – University World News magazine, 1May, 2021.

Towards European quality in education
Quality assurance of European universities is described by policy developers as an extremely important issue for both universities participating in the alliances and for the higher education sectors in other EU states; in such cooperation are already 15 countries.
A new consortium on quality education has held an initial meeting this June and was attended by representatives from 19 countries (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belgium/Flemish Community, Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, France, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Malta, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden, The Netherlands) and six organisations (the European University Association, the European Trade Union Committee for Education, the ESU, the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education and the ENQA).
Remaining challenges in transnational cooperation, where Bologna Process reforms have not yet been fully implemented, include also quality assurance of joint programs. It is crucial for the alliances to be open to new forms of EU-wide collaboration and innovation and the creation of more opportunities for learners in Europe. The new initiative could be a good driving force for changes in furthering the unification of the higher education systems among the EU states, to allow for wider access to high-quality education systems in Europe.

EU-wide learning and education
According to the Aurora alliance, universities’ cooperation has created a “powerful initiative” that is transforming EU’s higher education institutions: the alliances act as “laboratories to implement EU-wide learning” ranging from short-term opportunities to joint programs. For instance, since the start of the Aurora Alliance, the Universität Innsbruck has been in close consultation with the national Federal Ministry for Science and Research, to implement a European university student status in Austria, which would facilitate more active student participation from alliance partners.
UNA-EUROPA, an alliance of European research-intensive universities launched in early 2019, and one of the alliances piloted in the EUniQ project, welcomed the establishment of a European working group for transnational quality enhancement in particular, with strong links with both the EUniQ project and Bologna follow-up groups.
The EUniQ framework is a promising concept serving as a starting point for the development of an appreciative quality assurance framework for the European universities.
It is extremely vital that alliances explore holistic approach in all their missions and that some new frameworks shall be sufficiently flexible without creating additional requirements for universities but concentrating on delivering added value by enhancing quality through transnational cooperation.
Another alliance, CHARM-EU coordinated by the University of Barcelona, fully supported the EUniQ framework. This alliance managed to get the accreditation of the first program under the EUI and implemented it in 2021; the program strongly contributed to making two national legislations (in Spain and Hungary) more flexible for joint European degrees in a co-creation process with national ministries and agencies. It means that key elements for future EU-wide education include: a) focusing on quality assurance at the institutional level, b) enhancing existing progressive European educational tools, and c) building trust in educational transformation.
Source: Myklebust J.P. Thumbs up for new European Universities working group. – University World News, 7 July, 2022. In:

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