The Commission should aim to boost cohesion without limiting diversity, says Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik
The European Commission is paying more attention to universities. This is reflected in commissioner Mariya Gabriel’s portfolio, uniting research and innovation with culture, education and youth, as well as in the emphasis on research, innovation and education as enablers of the digital and green transitions.
It is also reflected in last year’s communications on the European Education Area and European Research Area, the updated Digital Education Action Plan and the renewed Skills Agenda.
This year, the Commission aims to develop a transformative “European strategy for universities”. The broad aim is to strengthen the synergies between universities’ missions in teaching, research, innovation and service to society by better linking related European-level policies. The specific objectives are to develop a common vision of what Europe’s universities should look like, identify needs and priorities, and draw up a roadmap for action.
Veterans in the sector might ask, is this not what university representatives have long sought—a holistic, university-centred approach to European-level higher education, research and innovation policy?
A question remains, though, over how this ambition can be achieved. Will the end point be an EU university policy like there is, for instance, an industrial policy?
The context is complex. First, EU competences on university matters are relatively limited—confined to a supporting role in higher education and a shared competence with member states in research. Instead, reforms to higher education take place mostly through the intergovernmental Bologna Process. The EU is supporting this process through its programmes and the Commission’s seat at the table.
Second, institutional autonomy and academic freedom are vital for universities to thrive. Any policy strategy must be conceived in dialogue with the sector.
There might be scope for incentives to promote universities’ shared objectives. But policymakers should not see universities as political instruments. At the European level, universities need more cohesive policy and better compatibility between higher education and research systems, achieving long-term resilience through more and deeper cooperation, as well as increased competitiveness.
At its core, the Bologna Process addresses compatibility. It also enables exchange and collaboration on learning, teaching and values, and supports peer learning. But investment and funding—important elements of the cohesion agenda—are not really included.
For its part, the renewed European Research Area aims at building compatibility, competitiveness and cohesion by strengthening researcher mobility and the flow of knowledge, enhancing cooperation, incentivising investment and promoting values.
The European Education Area adds all other education sectors and levels to the picture. Both areas cover their remits from an EU perspective, while Bologna is larger. This already complex picture is further complicated by a fragmented approach to implementation, dependent on the willingness and capacity of those involved.
Additional EU instruments will not change this, but an EU strategy to support universities could bring the different dimensions closer together—cutting through the complexity rather than adding another layer.
The aim, however, must never be to harmonise or eliminate all differences between universities. An EU university policy must instead support the diversity of institutional approaches. This means focusing on improving framework conditions.
The Commission must strike a balance between focusing effort on big challenges, and on identifying where the EU can add value. Subsidiarity is key here: not all challenges have the same relevance everywhere, so support instruments must be flexible.
The EU should support collaboration through its unique multilateral programmes and, where appropriate, create pan-European structures. It should incentivise reforms and investments at national level, and remind member states about the importance of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. The European semester process is useful in setting joint targets, and post-pandemic national recovery and resilience plans are a new opportunity to make investments and reforms in the university sector.
On transnational collaboration, the EU can identify major obstacles and provide support to work towards solutions. It should also point to divergence in national regulatory and funding frameworks when these become barriers to cooperation, but it can never replace member states’ efforts to make system-level reforms. Ultimately, implementation is what matters for universities to make a difference on the ground.
Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik is policy coordinator at the European University Association
This article also appeared in Research Europe