Modernising the EU-wide higher education (part II)

The second part deals with the EU-wide cooperative efforts in higher education. Present national education policy is critically vital for perspective national development and sustainable growth. But education sector is almost fully in the hands of national governance, according to the division of competence between the states and the EU institutions. The latter can only support, coordinate and assist the states in this vital modernisation; some of these efforts seem to produce positive effects. 

In the changing European and global education environment, the EU leaders at the 2017 Gothenburg Summit outlined some perspective visions for the EU-wide education. Thus, at the end of 2017, the European Council asked the Commission to proceed with “strengthening strategic partnerships across the EU between higher education institutions” and encouraging the emergence by 2024 of some twenty “European Universities”, consisting alliances-networks of universities to enable students obtaining a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and contributing to the international competitiveness of European universities.
The idea of European University Initiative, EUI, the impetus for which originated by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, seems a perfect instrument at the right time to facilitate the modernisation of education, training and research among the European states.
The selection of European universities has been made out of a broad range of higher education institutions across EU-28: i.e. from comprehensive and research-intensive universities, to schools of applied sciences, technical universities, as well as those in culture, architecture and fine arts. The consortiums will be the inter-university campuses around which students, teachers, doctoral candidates, staff and researchers can freely move around in EU-27: they will pool 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. Thus, so-called “European Universities” will also 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 the challenges these regions are facing.

Reducing negative impacts
The UNITE! Alliance is of opinion that in order to be successful alliances have to exert an important impact on the structure of higher education institutions, both on the universities within alliances but also on those outside alliances. The alliances, consisting of universities in different countries, will create important challenges to national legislation. These challenges will not, however, be limited to national legislation, as also internal policies and regulations within the universities themselves will be affected by the necessary reforms that will have to take place.
National quality assurance systems will be influenced by the changes and so will national quality assurance agencies.
The European Framework for the Comprehensive Quality Assurance of European Universities (worked out by EUniQ alliance) aims to avoid complications in which other alliances and universities would face additional red-tape situations associated with multiple quality agencies and quality systems in various states.
Source: Myklebust J. P. UWN European-Scandinavia sector’s writer. How to succeed in the European Universities Initiative, – University World News, 1 May 2021. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20210501094236528

Regional quality assurance organisations welcomed establishment of a new working group under the European Universities Initiative (2022-24) aimed at investigating the implementation of a common European framework for quality assurance.
For example, the EUniQ alliance (Framework for Comprehensive Quality Assurance) aims to develop a regional approach to comprehensive quality assurance among the European Universities. Part of the I’MINQA alliance (Implementation and Innovation in Quality Assurance through Peer Learning) works by the thematic peer section of the Bologna Follow up Group established to promote exchanges and collaboration between cooperating countries and ensure that they follow “quality assurance standards and regulations” within the European Higher Education Area”.
While some alliances were deemed to be comprehensive and cover all disciplines, others were e.g. focusing on urban coastal sustainability, social sciences or public health. Each alliance is composed, on an average, of five-seven higher education institutions from all European states. For example, three Baltic States are being quite active in the EUI: e.g. the ECIUn, an alliance among 12 European universities includes Lithuanian Kauno Technologijos Universitetas; the EU4Art group (Alliance for common fine arts curriculum) among 4 EU high schools is Latvijas Makslas Afademija (Latvian art academy); in the alliance FORTHEM (Fostering Outreach within European Regions, Transnational Higher Education and Mobility), among 7 other universities is Latvian State University (Latvijas Universitate); in ARQUS alliance, among 7 others high schools is Lithuanian Vilniaus Universitetas; and in the CONEXUS alliance (European University for Smart Urban Coastal Sustainability), among 5 others is another Lithuanian high school, Klaipedos Universitetas.
Besides the political support, the EU institutions assist the EUI financially: in total, a budget of up to €85 million has been available for the first 17 “European Universities”; each alliance received about €5 million during first three years of programs’ implementation. Thus, the original €60 million set aside for the new initiative has been increased to €85 million allowing for the funding of 17 alliances rather than the 12 initially foreseen.

“European universities” for educational quality
The EUI was thought as a set of transnational alliances to streamline modern challenge of “universities of the future”, by promoting European values and revolutionizing the quality and competitiveness of European higher education. Through the EU support, the EUI assists various cooperation models (called alliances of European universities) through the Erasmus+ programs for 2021-27. In the beginning, the EUI underlined that “operating alliances” were to serve as role models for the paths “towards the European Higher Education Area, EHEA”.
Thus, the alliances: a) include partners from all types of higher education institution and cover almost all European states; b) they are based on a common long-term strategies focused on sustainability, excellence and European values; they offer student-centered curricula jointly delivered across inter-university campuses (with diverse student bodies participating with their own programs and experience mobility at all levels of study; and c) they adopt an inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approach to teaching and research with students, academics and external partners cooperating in teams to tackle biggest European and global challenges.
During 2019 and 2020, under the first two calls for proposals, there were selected 41 European Universities’ alliances, initially to test various models of the EU’s universities’ cooperation to evaluate the needed higher education evolution and transformation.
In the EU’s European Universities Factsheets there is comparative information on existing EUI’s alliances in operation since November 2020 and through the mid-term review in 2021. These factsheets include detailed information on each alliance: i.e. the numbers of students and staff in the participating institutions, faculties and research projects, the “visions for the future and putting them into practice”, as well as a section on alliances’ roles in “transforming universities”.
References to:
https://education.ec.europa.eu/document/european-universities-initiative-factsheet; and
https://education.ec.europa.eu/sites/default/files/document-library-docs/european-universities-initiative-factsheet.pdf

Prospects of education quality assurance
= EUniQ alliance. The Flemish Community coordinated the EUniQ project through the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders; the project consortium comprised eight quality assurance agencies, six ministries and the EU-wide organisations, like EUA, European Student Union and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. The EUniQ project was developed within the framework of the peer support group on quality assurance of the Bologna Implementation and Coordination Group (BICG).
Four European universities (Una Europa, EUTOPIA, UNITE! and YUFE) have been quality assured by the EUniQ project (“Developing a European approach for comprehensive QA of European University networks”), coordinated by the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders, NVAO in the Hague, and involving quality assurance organisations in Armenia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Latvia, Serbia, Italy and Sweden.
During 2019-21, the EUniQ’s activity included developing a framework of a peer support group on quality assurance of the Bologna Implementation and Coordination Group; e.g. it has developed a methodology for measuring quality assurance in compliance with the EHEA”s Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, which is funded by the Erasmus+ program.
The EUA analyzed governance structures of 20 alliances (three of them in detail, i.e. Una Europa, Aurora and UNIC), showing examples of different types of approaches. Serving as a cooperative model for universities, the alliances represent a very resource-intensive model: universities seeking to engage in alliances need to be aware of this, evaluate the models’ preferences compared to other forms of enhanced cooperation, have a clear long-term vision and focus on achievable goals that align with their individual institutional strategies.
Some alliances monitored by the EUniQ project and the EUA governance report (Una Europa was evaluated by both) can give good practical advice to universities planning new alliances.

= UNIC: the ‘European University of Post-Industrial Cities’ includes University of Deusto (Spain), Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany), University College Cork (Ireland), Koç University (Turkey), University of Liège (Belgium) and the University of Oulu (Finland), reported that in order education and governance sectors in each of the participating states, each partner must establish a UNIC executive office. Thus, the University College Cork is already using the UNIC’s concept implementation by embedding it within the overall governing institutions. The Irish UNIC executive office includes participants from various administrative sectors: from the offices of the president, the registrar and academic affairs, of European relations and public affairs, international education, social sciences, ICT, research and innovation, corporate and legal affairs, marketing and communications, etc.

= UNITE!: the alliance is devoted to the University Network for Innovation, Technology and Engineering and include Technische Universität Darmstadt (Germany), Aalto University (Finland), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), Grenoble Institute of Technology (France), Politecnico di Torino (Italy), Polytechnic University of Catalonia (Spain) and the Universidade de Lisboa (Portugal).
The alliance’s aim is to educate a new generation of European students in science, technology and engineering, transcending the traditional engineering education, with an entrepreneurial mind-set. The alliance intends to take advantage of a broad spectrum of disciplines, beyond their common core in science and engineering, to integrate multidisciplinarity with arts, design, business, humanities and social sciences.
The alliance’s most ambitious project is devoted to the “joint doctoral degree” program: the partner universities identified a number of regulation challenges such as reference structure and PhD context, duration, PhD path and course requirements, financial support and fees, admission procedures and requirements for the candidates, as well as requirements for performance and monitoring, admission to the final evaluation, final evaluation and defence, and the PhD thesis and documents. The regulatory status of these requirements is in many cases based on national and regional legislation. However, numerous EU ministries and national/ regional authorities were willing to help in “addressing those challenges”.

= YUFE alliance (Young Universities for the Future of Europe) includes Maastricht University (The Netherlands), University of Antwerp (Belgium), University of Bremen (Germany), University of Cyprus, University of Essex (United Kingdom), University of Eastern Finland and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain).
The alliance’s goal is “to bring radical change by becoming the leading model of a young, student-centered, non-elitist, open and inclusive European University based on cooperation between higher education institutions, public and private sector, and citizens”.
YUFE has established an actively working alliance management structure. The highest decision-making body is the YUFE Strategy Board which consists of executives of YUFE institutions (both full as well as associated partners), president and vice president of the student forum, and the YUFE managing director as the main advisor to the YUFE Strategy Board at strategic and policy level.

= The ENQA alliance is aimed at performing transnational quality assurance within the European universities and addresses core issues in this field, with an evident lack of will in several countries to work on their national assurance in higher education. It has become urgent to adopt a special legislation for transnational quality assurance and to ensure a conscious national will to stimulate quality assurance across national borders.
The League of European Research Universities is of an opinion that, while the follow-up actions will be helpful to reassure universities entering alliances, eliminating legal barriers regarding the recognition of degrees, the set-up of joint degrees, the delivery of a European university degree, and other legal and bureaucracy issues.
A common quality assurance method developed by the EUniQ alliance is able to create a “joint internal quality assurance policy and method” to ensure a consistent and overarching view on joint transnational activities. However, in terms of external quality assurance usage, it is presently unlikely that the national quality assurance administration would use it, as the method is not well suited to replace national quality assurance approaches with the external one.

SDG studies in European universities
The rate of progress around the world and in EU varies among goals, with SDGs 3 and 5 (health and gender equality) faring best, and SDG 1 (poverty eradication) and SDG 4 (education) showing little improvement. OECD countries are not likely to actually reach the targets in the absence of additional measures, argued recent UN Sustainable Development Goals report.
Reference to: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/5b2b0ee8-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/5b2b0ee8-en

In 2018 the European Commission suggested new education tools to help schools in the EU states and some neighbouring countries (e.g. Russia, Georgia and Serbia) using digital technologies for teaching and learning. In the EU alone, the new tool will be offered to 76.7 million students and teachers in 250,000 schools on a voluntary basis. Besides, universities have to activate inclusion of SDGs into their agendas and curricula.
Of course, not all 17 SDGs’s achievement is vital for both national growth and, consequently, for education policies; e.g. in Scandinavian countries (for example, in Norway’s Oslo university the programs are focusing on SDGs 8, 9, 11, 12, 16 and 17. A focal point is the SDG-4, which orient governments to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
The tasks of meeting SDGs is not only an important national growth strategy, it is also a vital part of its education policy, as achieving the SDGs would be impossible without the leadership role of the university sector, argued Jeffrey D. Sachs, the senior United Nations advisor on SDGs. Main argument in universities’ favor is that politicians lack knowledge and scientific expertise and evidence-based research in achieving the SDGs which the high schools have in plenty… The universities understand batter the post optimal ways of incorporating ICT and digital tool into electronic governance, finances, health, trade, etc.
The European University Association (EUA) published recently a report, “The Governance Models of the European University Alliances: Evolving models of university governance”, which underlines that alliance’s expectations were quite high and a broader European Education Area and the European Commission placed them at the forefront of the university transformation agenda. In the partnerships’ governance they are highly relevant in terms of structures and inclusiveness.

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