Commission makes a pitch for greater EU cooperation on education

16 Nov 2017 | News

Leaders from 28 member states will discuss proposals to set up university networks, remove obstacles to mobility in education, and form a European Education Area in which ‘learning, studying and doing research is not hampered by borders’

EU Commissioner Jyrki Katainen. Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service/Lukasz Kobus

The Commission has laid out a buffet of reform options for education in Europe by 2025, with proposals to create European university networks and EU scholarships, and to remove obstacles to EU-wide recognition of higher education diplomas and lifelong learning certificates.

The proposals will now go before the 28 EU heads of state, who hold the real power in setting education goals, at a meeting in Gothenburg on Friday.

Commissioner for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, set out several possible paths for the bloc’s education future on Tuesday, saying there are still obstacles to mobility. “By 2025 we should live in a Europe in which learning, studying and doing research is not hampered by borders, but where spending time in another member state to study, learn or work is the norm."

Options for greater cooperation on education include creating a new network of European universities, so that they can work seamlessly together across borders.

Forming the European Education Area would require mutual recognition of skills and qualifications in secondary, tertiary and vocational training. Despite the long-running Bologna process and its aim of establishing comparability of higher education outcomes, qualifications that are automatically accepted in more than one country in the EU are still the exception, the Commission says.

School diplomas are not readily recognised in other member states, which means that young people are hindered, for no good reason, from taking up studies or work in another country. Now the Commission wants to set up a “Sorbonne Process” to work towards mutual recognition of school leaving qualifications.

The introduction of an “EU student card” would “offer a new user-friendly way to store information on a person's academic records”, the Commission proposes.

The EU also wants to set an overall target for member states to invest five per cent of GDP in education. Many member states average around this figure already, but there are geographical differences, with countries such as Romania spending around 4 per cent and Scandinavian countries spending up to 7 per cent.

In addition, the Commission proposes agreeing new common targets for digital skills and entrepreneurship, and establishing EU scholarships for master’s programmes in computing, with the aim of increasing the number of specialists in cybersecurity, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

There is a target to double participation in the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme, in particular boosting the involvement of young adults from deprived backgrounds. Over 30 years, the scheme has sponsored nine million people to study, train, teach, or volunteer in another country.

Many of the Commission’s ideas echo proposals put forward in September by French president Emmanuel Macron, in a speech intended to breathe new life into the European project. Given this, the outcome of the head of states meeting can be viewed an indicator of the appetite in Europe for Macron’s loud call for greater EU integration.

There is also a goal, again echoing Macron, that all young Europeans finish secondary education with a “good knowledge” of two languages, in addition to their mother tongue.

More of the common EU budget should also go to the small number of European higher education institutions that “deliver education on European issues”, the Commission says. Examples of EU-focused institutes include the European University Institute in Florence, the College of Europe in Bruges, the European Institute of Public Administration in Maastricht, the Academy of European Law in Trier and the Centre International de Formation Européenne in Nice.

The Commission wants to add another institute for EU affairs to this list: the School of European and Transnational Governance in Florence, to be modelled on the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in the US.

The proposals received generally positive feedback from universities, education lobbyists and MEPs.

“I would love to see those [proposals] become reality,” said Stefan Jahnke, project manager at the EU-funded European University Foundation. “We need more European cooperation.”

“A nice, ambitious Commission document; not much one could oppose,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, an association of 23 universities. Deketelaere did however question the desirability for a new school in Florence (“Not enough EU institutions yet?”) and, responding to the proposal to create EU universities networks, said, “LERU members are in fact global, not only European, institutions.”

The chair of the parliamentary committee on culture and education in the European Parliament, the centre-left MEP Petra Kammerevert, said, "The paper is in many ways the best and most ambitious strategy paper that has been written for years at EU level on [education].

"What is new is that the Commission recognises that the creation of a European identity must be more pro-active and that this can only succeed through education and culture,” she added in a statement.

Kummerevert’s colleague, Silvia Costa, a spokeswoman for culture and education said it was important that EU goals for education had “finally been identified” by the Commission.

The European University Association, which has 800 members in 47 countries, also welcomed the new set of proposals, but added that they "would need careful alignment with existing frameworks such as the Bologna Process. Policy fragmentation and the creation of parallel processes should be avoided."

With the UK preparing to leave the EU, Kieron Broadhead, director of student experience at Goldsmiths, University of London, was more wistful about the proposals.

“Plans are afoot and we are not part of them,” he told an audience on Thursday at the CIS Forum in Edinburgh, an annual global gathering of university admission and recruitment officers.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up