Europe’s mobility ambitions should go far beyond joint degrees

Creating a cross-border qualification within a year is hugely ambitious but the wider benefits of mobility should be huge, say Jo Angouri and Jan Palmowski

September 29, 2023
Amsterdam airport
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With the current leadership of the European Commission coming to the end of its mandate in a year’s time, there is a real focus on bringing over the line a key goal of the European Education Area: the creation of a joint European degree.

Currently, a number of pilot projects are being developed by more than 90 universities across Europe. But a European degree will only be welcomed by the sector if it provides clear added value.

If the commission aims for 20 per cent cross-border mobility for all university students, including 50 per cent within European University Alliances, embedded mobility would need to become core to our student offer. Hundreds of universities in the alliances have already signed up to these goals. But for these to be achieved, more needs to be done, fast. This includes finding ways to ease the burdens of administration and quality assurance for degrees made up of courses taken at different institutions in different countries.

If mobility is to be a reality for a significant proportion of students, courses can no longer be designed as if studying abroad is a luxury for the few, to be accommodated as an add-on. For instance, economic constraints on many working students, as well as the limits imposed by tightly regulated degrees such as engineering, medicine and teacher training, will make it essential to devise different types of short-term options, from summer schools to flexible hybrid courses that include short in-person stints.

Moreover, the European Union’s ambition to transform mobility can only succeed if this is not simply about numbers but about the diversity of learning experiences. It is time to step up our focus on how we can maximise the added educational value of different modes of mobility and to use these strategically in course design.

Compelling Europe’s higher education institutions to develop mobility opportunities flexibly is a huge opportunity for creativity. It will enable us to capitalise on the experiences of the pandemic, the technology available, and the close cooperation formats that have developed (most importantly, through European University alliances).

We can also consider how different pedagogical approaches of partner institutions might affect our teaching and learning strategies more broadly. There is no doubt that bringing young people together can have a transformational impact and promote the ideals of equality, respect and solidarity. This, however, is not achieved through simple coexistence but through learning experiences that enable peer dialogue and reciprocity.

Turning the vision into reality is not simply about pedagogy. More flexible formats will require most universities to significantly adjust course structures, quality assurance processes and technological support. Institutions will need to consider how students engaging in a large variety of mobility practices can be supported and how academics can be incentivised to take on the challenge to create – and be creative about – developing new modes of mobility.

Scaling up mobility must change our approaches to teaching and learning, and these need to be embedded in institutional behaviour. But they also need the critical support of national ministries and agencies. Public education has been core to European state-building from its inception, so for national bodies to support more transnational modes of educational delivery and pedagogy will not be easy.

However, European states have already signed up to the European Education Area, and they enthusiastically support the mobility targets of the European University Alliances. Indeed, the time is right for change. The question is no longer whether but how to support the Europeanisation of higher education. If governments want their young people to be better skilled to address the transnational challenges they will face during their lifetimes, there is no alternative to enabling students to cross boundaries.

None of this will be achieved through a business-as-usual approach. A key challenge for national bodies, for instance, will be that the design of European transnational education must, by definition, be led by academic institutions. Any attempt to replace current clunky national regulations with new ones will be bound to fail.

But the abolition of business of usual should be embraced. At the core of the European Education Area must lie an ambition to change pedagogies, administrative practices and institutional reflection across boundaries. A new European degree must be part of this reflection, but not the only part.

We will only make the most of this unique moment in European higher education if we allow it to fully impact how students benefit from mobility in all its dimensions.

Jo Angouri is academic director for education and internationalisation at the University of Warwick. She is author of “Transnational collaboration and mobility in higher education: Looking back – looking forward”, published by the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities in June. Jan Palmowski is professor of modern history at Warwick, and currently on research leave as secretary general of the guild.

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