Europe as “one higher education space”

The President of Maastricht University argues in a piece for the Guardian Higher Education Network for greater European integration in higher education:

Not before time, the House of Lords in the UK has announced an inquiry into European Union support for universities and student mobility. By now, the vision of a single higher-education space across Europe was supposed to be a reality. But achieving that goal is taking longer than expected.

The idea was that by 2010 students and academic staff would be moving freely between European countries and institutions, secure in the knowledge that the qualifications they achieved would translate between EU member states.

Some significant progress has been made in the 12 years since all this was first envisaged in the Bologna protocol, drawn up by 29 countries across Europe, and in the five years since recognition of common European degree standards was agreed in Lisbon. More than 210,000 students now spend part of their degree abroad through the Erasmus exchange scheme alone, and the number of academics crossing national borders to teach is increasing year on year.

But no-one would argue that we are anywhere near reaching all the goals these two agreements set out. A report last month on the Erasmus scheme showed that one in five students was forced to retake courses and exams after failing to receive full credit for studies abroad, while the European Commission has just put forward new measures to support the aims of the higher education area, including profiling institutions and giving financial support to master’s students studying abroad.

Professor Paul is right to be critical of the slow pace of change. He suggests closer collaboration between a small group of universities with international outlooks from different member states as a pilot project to acheive a more meaningful model for a European education. This would then be the ‘blueprint’ for the new European University.

I’m not sure that we need a new blueprint – there are many excellent internationally-focused universities across Europe and I think it is unlikely that many of them will wish to change their approach because of such work. Greater convergence will happen where it is in the interests of universities to do so. Some change has happened, albeit slowly, towards the Bologna and Lisbon agreements but what all of this does highlight is the difficulty of imposing external standards or structures on autonomous universities where the benefits are not immediately obvious. It is far from clear that a standardised European view of international education is what is needed to deliver a “knowledge-based workforce” for Europe in a singke higher education space.

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