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Ministers: ‘EU should use Covid fund for European Universities’

Image: European Union

Quality assurance “must be in place” to put EU nations on equal footing, ministers say

EU education ministers have said countries should use their share of the bloc’s €750 billion Covid-19 recovery fund to boost the European Universities Initiative—an EU scheme that supports cross-border cooperation on research and education among university alliances.

Ministers in the Council of the EU adopted conclusions on the EUI at a meeting on 17 May. In a statement, the Council said it wants EU countries to use any means possible to support the initiative, which aims among other things to boost career development for researchers and set common accreditation standards, including for microcredentials—certification of courses shorter than traditional degrees.

“The Council invites member states to take advantage of all available funding possibilities, including the [EU] Recovery and Resilience Facility…to support the development of European Universities,” the Council said. It added that the EUI should be “central” to achieving an “ambitious vision of an innovative, globally competitive and attractive European Education Area and European Research Area”, referring to EU policy packages for raising standards in research and education.

EUI obstacles 

The EUI has so far supported 41 university networks, using funding from the EU’s Erasmus+ mobility programme and its R&D programme. Some countries have bolstered their institutions’ participation using national funding, but this has been patchy and leaders of institutions involved in networks have said they will need more funding to meet their ambitions.

Portugal’s science minister Manuel Heitor (pictured), who moderated the discussion and whose country currently holds the rotating Council presidency, acknowledged that there are hurdles in the way of achieving the initiative’s aims. “We know there are still a number of obstacles,” he said.

Ministers and ambassadors at the meeting largely voiced enthusiasm for the EUI, and most reported having in place national legislation to strengthen joint accreditation or being in the process of discussing or adopting such legislation. The small number of exceptions included representatives of Belgium, who said it was still “early” to adapt its laws to accommodate microcredentials.

However, the ministers also listed common concerns, such as ensuring the equal distribution of research talent and skills in the EU. Numerous ministers said there is a need for quality assurance to verify that nations provide an equal and high level of education.

Excellence standards

In particular, Austria’s education minister Heinz Faßmann voiced concern over what he said was a lack of emphasis on “excellence” in education across all member states—something he said was still missing from the EUI.

While Faßmann said Austria “clearly supports” a European initiative on higher education, he underscored that this “requires trust” and confidence that other member states also maintain a high bar. “Quality assurance is key to this trust,” he said, adding: “That’s a very important point of concern…if quality measures are to be on European footing.”

Ministers also adopted conclusions on diversity in higher education. But Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, policy coordinator at the European University Association, told Research Professional News she regretted the framing. “Excellence versus inclusiveness are spoken about as though they are opposed to each other—I think we have to overcome that paradigm,” she said, adding that participants in the EUI are already subject to a rigorous selection process that filters out any institutions that fall short of excellence standards. 

Claeys-Kulik said that the general consensus among education ministers to more closely align laws for common accreditation was  encouraging. “It is positive that ministers of several countries confirmed during the Council debate that they were already working on changing their legal framework to overcome certain obstacles for deeper transnational cooperation—that’s important not only for the European Universities alliances,” she said.

Still, Claeys-Kulik noted that for the EUI and other cross-border initiatives to succeed, the ministers’ words would need to translate into concrete steps forward. “They need to come now from the political commitment to action everywhere,” she said.