Higher education in Europe: the glass is more than half full

Three achievements are underestimated in current political debates, says Anne Corbett

January 1, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, sitting in old army barracks that are now part of the University of Luxembourg, I pondered what Europe has achieved in higher education. Here I was with a generational mix of 15 or so researchers, presenting and discussing pre-publication papers on the internationalisation of higher education in Europe.

This workshop was a triumph of the easy multilingualism of Europe. Once the sessions were finished, everyone was fluent in at least two languages. As they switched from workshop English to socialise, I counted bilingual conversations in French, German, Luxemburgish, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, and one that shaded from Slovene into Serbo-Croat. Several in the group had three or four languages at their command.

The workshop also symbolised one of the great achievements of modern Europe. The participants were drawn from all phases of European unification. The organisers, who are based at the universities of Luxembourg and Strasbourg, were representatives of the founding six member states who created, out of the ashes of war, a Europe committed to peace.

The Portuguese discussant stood for the European Union member states that in the 1980s rid themselves of dictatorships. The Poles and the Romanians symbolised the reunification of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, entering the EU in the enlargements of 2004 and 2007.

I suggest that behind this particular example, there are three achievements of Europeanised higher education that are underestimated in current political debate and that highlight the wider achievements of the EU.

First, political choices. The Maastricht Treaty agreement dating from 1992 stabilises EU-member state relationships by ensuring that member states should continue to control the curriculum and language of their education systems. Since 1999, voluntary coordination through the Bologna Process has created a good deal of comprehension as well as systemic convergence.

Second, resources. The EU has successfully oiled the wheels not only for research but also for such incentives as scholarships (Erasmus Mundus now Erasmus+) and general learning mobility.

Third is the institutionalisation that these European higher education dynamics have created. The Council of Europe has emerged as a corrective to pure neo-liberalism in higher education via its involvement with the Bologna Process. The European Students’ Union is a proven kindergarten for future European policymakers. Universities have increasingly supported interconnected centres of excellence in higher education research.

In these gloomy times, when it is almost eccentric to speak up for membership of the EU, the May 1998 declaration by the ministers from France, Germany, Italy and the UK at the 800th anniversary of the Sorbonne, is an apt reminder of why Europe’s universities should continue their work of strengthening and building on the intellectual, cultural, social and technological dimensions of Europe. As those ministers memorably put it: “Europe is not only that of the euro [and] of the banks.”

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