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.

Swings and roundabouts?

UK students rush to Maastricht. European students run to the UK

So what is the story here? Is UK (or English) higher education in the post-Browne era so terrible that a mass exodus to the Netherlands is underway? The Independent reports that a Dutch university has seen a ‘tenfold’ rise in applicants:

The number of British teenagers applying to one of Europe’s leading universities has risen dramatically this year. Maastricht University in the Netherlands has seen a tenfold increase with more than 400 applications from UK students compared with just 35 at the same time last year.

A key factor in the rise is the cost of studying at Maastricht: only £1,526 a year, compared with £3,240 at present at English universities.

Many of those who applied are fearful of their chances of getting a UK place this September as the number of applications has soared as people attempt to beat the rise in tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year next September.


So, shocking news there. But, wait a minute. It seems that there is another flow of traffic here. The Daily Express reports that more students from other EU states want to come to the UK to benefit from our generously subsidised higher education system and low cost loans:

Applications by students from member states in mainland Europe rose by a record 5.8 per cent at the end of May, with almost 46,000 applying in total.

UK candidates increased by 0.8 per cent, meaning they may face even more competition in the race for degree courses this summer, as applicants clamour for places before a rise in tuition fees next year.

Students from across the European Union are subsidised by the taxpayer and are eligible for low-interest Government loans. They also count towards the strict cap on university places, putting them in direct competition with UK applicants.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) revealed that 45,727 EU students applied by last month, up 2,515 on the same time last year.

In 2010, the number of Lithuanians who won places at UK universities increased by 71 per cent. The number of Latvians was up 61 per cent and Romanians 57 per cent.

Shocking stuff. It’s lucky we can have it both ways on this issue.

French universities argue over Sorbonne title

“French universities squabble over who has rights to Sorbonne”

The Times has a fascinating report on a dispute among French universities over who has the rights to use the title Sorbonne:

Fights over the Sorbonne, the seat of learning on the Paris Left Bank, usually involve students, riot police and ideology. The latest, however, is among rival chancellors and the city council. This time the stakes are for big money. The dispute is over the right to the name Sorbonne. At least six different universities are locked in a squabble for the brand, which in the eyes of foreigners — but not the French — has a prestige on a par with Oxford or Harvard. While US and British universities have marketed their brands, the underfunded and strike-prone universities of Paris woke up late to the value of the name they share. The trouble began when one of them, Paris IV Sorbonne, opened a branch in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and sold exclusive rights in the Middle East to the name “Paris Sorbonne”.

So far, so bad. But it gets worse:

Now everyone is following suit. About 70 versions of the Sorbonne brand have been registered by six universities, the Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, and commercial enterprises. The feud took off last year when the universities began banding together with President Sarkozy’s encouragement to create centres of excellence. The state will spend hundreds of millions of euros on the chosen few. Mr Delanoë pointed out that the Sorbonne building belonged to the council. The university bosses and the mayor held a peace meeting last week, agreeing that all Paris universities were heirs to the name and could use variants. But the battle is not over.

Perhaps naively I had assumed that there was just one Sorbonne and that there was some form of regulation in France similar to that in the UK which would prevent this kind of confusion over university titles and names. Evidently not. This sort of dilution of what should be a really prestigious brand can’t do anyone any favours. But it’s pretty difficult to see how they are going to resolve this easily.

Annual review of university rankings

EUA to publish ‘annual review’ of worldwide university rankings

EUA (the European University Association) has said it intends to publish an annual review of world university rankings. Given the growing number of league tables and rankings, national and international, and the impact of these on “decision-making and activities in universities across Europe” EUA has, rather helpfully, decided to publish an annual review of university rankings.

The aim of this new pilot project will be to provide universities with transparent information about international rankings by critically evaluating their methodologies, assessing potential biases and suggesting improvements. The review will also help universities to develop strategies to cope with rankings, as well as encouraging alternative approaches to enhance transparency.

The annual review – due to appear for the first time in 2011 – will include a compendium of different international ranking initiatives with a thorough critique and analysis, and will be complemented by a series of critical articles by leading experts in the field. To disseminate this information and stimulate debate on the findings, EUA also plans to organise an annual rankings seminar for university leaders across Europe.

This sounds like a timely and potentially very helpful intervention.

Europe’s “best universities”

CHE Excellence Ranking 2009

A league table that isn’t actually a league table: via “European best universities” – ZEIT ONLINE

The CHE Excellence Ranking compares a selected group of European universities for each subject. Find the most interesting places in Europe for doing your master’s or doctoral degree!

For seven different subjects a group of 20 to 60 European universities were selected by their results in research and (for Political Science, Economics and Psychology) internationalisation indicators. This selected group of universities is called the “Excellence Group” of the respective subject. For this Excellence Groups, an institutional survey as well as a student survey was conducted. For outstanding results in any one indicator, a “star” was awarded.

Interesting approach this. Not sure that it will take off but it is a serious effort and worth watching. Also. gratifying that the University of Nottingham appears in both the Economics and Politics lists but unfortunately they seem to have failed to notice psychology.

UK students: understretched or just efficient?

UK students spending less time studying than elsewhere in Europe

A new HEPI report on a survey of 15,000 students finds that they averaged 26 hours of class contact and private learning.

The BBC coverage provides a helpful list of findings:

    Vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said length of study provided no information about degree quality.

    The think tank’s survey found that students were offered 14.2 hours of teaching per week on average.

    The range was from just over 20 hours to 8.4 hours.

    The three subjects with the lowest hours of teaching – historical and philosophical studies, linguistics and social studies – had less than half the level of teaching of the most heavily taught subject, veterinary and agricultural science.

    In addition, the amount of private study ranged from 16.5 hours a week among those on architecture, building and planning courses to 9.5 hours in mass communications and documentation. The average was 12.5 hours.

    A separate survey, Eurostudent 2005, collates comparable data on the socio-economic background and living conditions of students throughout Europe. Those taking their first degree in Germany typically spend nearly 35 hours per week in total studying, and in Portugal it is about 40 hours per week.

Oh dear. So why does it take German students so much longer, on average, to complete their degrees?

But worse is to come. In a quote, which surely could not be anything like a gross over-simplification, the director of HEPI, Bahram Bekhradnia, said there was also:

a marked gender difference in the amount of studying that students did. “Boys are down the pub and the girls are in the library, you can characterise that as”

Despite this, the report really is worth reading.