Despite years of effort, universities find it hard to overcome the constraints of national regulations and launch joint transnational programmes, or recognise each other’s degrees. A new attempt is being made to resolve these issues
The EU has been pushing for convergence in the university sector for several decades, but when it comes to collaborating transnationally, universities struggle to deal with the patchwork of national regulations governing higher education.
The European University Association (EUA) has taken stock and listed the biggest barriers to transnational collaboration in a briefing paper last week.
The problems, such as quality assurance for joint degrees and differences in how tuition is managed, are not new. European countries have been working on reforming their national structures to create a single market for higher education as part of the Bologna process for over 20 years.
Also in the last few years, the EU has been pushing for more university collaboration under the European University Alliances, in which networks of EU-supported universities are piloting new ways to work together.
With universities pushed to collaborate beyond specific areas such as mobility, the cracks in the system are more and more evident. “These were manageable to some extent within the previous paradigm, but the scale of the issue is now larger,” said Enora Bennetot Pruvot, deputy director for governance, funding and public policy development at the EUA, one of the authors of the briefing.
The first big problem is the accreditation and quality assurance of joint study programmes, which would lie at the heart of transnational university collaboration. There is a European system adopted by ministers back in 2015 enabling joint accreditation, but its implementation is fragmented, with many countries not applying it fully.
There are also big differences in how degrees are structured and course credits transferred and accumulated in different countries. This impedes the launch of joint programmes between institutions, with some systems limiting the duration and workload of certain courses.
Limits to which languages courses can be taught in can also create obstacles. In Lithuania, non-Lithuanian courses must be justified as serving the purpose of ‘internationalisation.’ In Denmark, a new system introduced in 2021 limits how many study places in each institution can be delivered in English. In Flanders, only up to 35% of master’s programmes can be delivered in languages other than Dutch. This limits how many transnational programmes the universities in each country can run.
Another issue is charging students for education. In many countries, bachelor’s level education is free. In some the fees are set by the universities themselves, in other by national authorities. This creates all kinds of problems when trying to collaborate and send students between institutions.
The way universities themselves are funded is also a constraint. Universities rely on more and more small-scale income sources and performance-based funding instruments, which puts a massive administrative burden on them. This means there is often no one stream of funding for joint study programme collaboration, making it hard to finance on such programmes.
There are also differences in academic calendars and how staff and financing are managed in universities.
Increasing the pressure
With the alliances entering their fourth year and with the first evaluations coming up, the EUA is drawing attention to the issues that should be tackled if the alliances are to grow. “We think in this discussion it’s important to not put even more pressure by adding further policy goals or judging the alliances for something that is not entirely in their hands,” said Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, deputy director for policy coordination and foresight at the EUA. “The regulatory framework has to go with it. This is a message to national level policymakers.”
The briefing is an early look into the obstacles listed by national rector’s conferences. The EUA hopes an EU-level mapping of the problems will help move towards addressing them. It would also enable the policymakers to figure out at what levels – institutional, regional, national or European – the barriers should be tackled. “The first step is to make a comprehensive mapping of all the issues,” said Claeys-Kulik. “Once this mapping has been done, the question is who has to act where.”
These must be system-level reforms rather than quick fixes targeting the new university alliance. “Quick fixes such as through exceptions for alliances, will not be enough to boost transnational university cooperation across Europe,” said Bennetot Pruvot. “We need enabling framework conditions for all universities supporting diverse forms of cooperation including and beyond alliances.”