Commission rolls out plan for European university degree

28 Mar 2024 | News

As the EU paves way for cross-border degrees, universities decry the lack of a dedicated budget for the plan

Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas (left) and EU education commissioner Iliana Ivanova announcing the Higher Education Package (HEP). Photo credits: Jennifer Jacquemart / European Union

One year since the launch of a pilot project , the European Commission has officially announced the Higher Education Package (HEP), a new scheme under which voluntary partner universities can set up competitive joint degree programmes at Bachelor, Master, or Doctoral levels.

University associations welcomed the announcement of the EU degree, but say the outcomes are uncertain, as the Commission has not planned a budget for the voluntary scheme. 

According to the Commission, the new policy package aims to facilitate education mobility by removing the bureaucratic obstacles that students often face when they want additional education in other EU member states—e.g., credit recognition, a free bureaucracy process to obtain multi-cultural exchange opportunities, etc. The Commission also hopes it will help universities come up with new educational offerings that would teach graduates skills which are resilient to future challenges.

Education policy is largely a national competence in the EU, with Brussels having very little to say over how universities in France or in Greece organise their degrees. Such fragmentation has hindered transnational cooperation between universities.

Over the past few years, universities have been able to work together with the help of dedicated funding through the so-called European university alliances, under which they were able to launch joint degree programmes and research programming. But policy changes at national level and sustainable funding, jointly implementing practical projects has proved to be difficult.

"In a few years, the European Degree will find its place next to Schengen, next to Erasmus, next to the Single Market, next to the Euro, as concrete European accomplishments that make people's Europe more understood and more present," said Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas during a press conference on Wednesday.

The Commission proposes member states a staged approach, with two tracks for universities that want to enable the European Degree in their country, according to EU education commissioner Iliana Ivanova

The first track consists of a preparatory European label certificate for graduates from joint degree programmes that meet the European criteria; the second comprises a full European degree awarded by several European universities at once or by a European legal entity.

The package includes initiatives to support EU countries and the higher education sector in implementing the proposal - a European degree policy lab, an annual European degree forum, and new Erasmus+ support for European degree Pathway Projects – as well as legal and system-level reforms on recognition of degrees and quality assurance systems.

However, the package does not include an additional budget to implement the proposed projects, Ivanova confirmed.

While the Commission has high hopes the new joint degree will succeed and the education community welcomed the European Degree warmly, the announcement left the same stakeholders confused.

“Obstacles to joint programmes are many, and it is not clear if the establishment of a European Degree will as of itself solve them,” Maria Kelo, director for institutional development at the European University Association (EUA), told Science|Business.

In addition to the HEP not having a specific budget, taking part in the European degree is on a voluntary basis, which, with a lack of specific funds, could thwart the whole project, critics say.

“It seems uncertain how the implementation will be possible without a specific allocation of resources,” said Sophie Ratcliff, advisor for higher education at CESAER, a non-profit association of universities of science and technology in Europe. “

This poses a core challenge to ensure effectiveness in future efforts, and we risk losing momentum as little new activity can take place if there are no new resources to support it,” she said.

Voluntary initiatives in the past have failed to ensure mutual recognition of qualifications across the EU. That was the issue for the Bologna Process, launched in 1999 to promote the development of a single European Education area that supported some level of mutual recognition of university degrees.

Hence, MEPs advocated for increased EU oversight of education, a domain currently under the exclusive legislative purview of member states, as per the subsidiarity principle.

In a previous interview, Sabine Verheyen, chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, told Science|Business that a minimum quality standard throughout Europe is needed to facilitate the recognition of learning or study results.

“What we see at the moment, also with the Bologna Process, is that you have some universities that do not accept the credits that you earn in another university. There’s always the argument that the other university’s standards are not quality enough,” said Verheyen.

Indeed, the package presented today includes proposals for Council Recommendations on a European recognition and quality assurance (QA) system and attractive careers, which aims to “ensure that national higher education systems address the uneven recognition of the diverse roles staff take on in addition to research,” attracting talented people, reads the blueprint.

“All in all, this HEP is a promising approach by DG EAC [the Commission’s education directorate], considering the present legal boundaries within which it has to work,” said Kurt Deketelaere, expert in EU higher education policy, and secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU). Whether this “will be successful will very much depend on DG EAC’s leadership and perseverance, and the MS’ willingness to give up national obstacles,” Deketelaere said. “The European Education Area was in the doldrums. With the HEP, we can have some hope again.”

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