Concerns are growing that the Brexit process is leaving the UK a bystander to the European Union’s development of a European Education Area, with some suggesting that the nation has been unfairly excluded before it leaves the bloc.
Others, however, believe the UK’s status in relation to the key higher education harmonisation initiative simply reflects the “sad fact” of the nation’s impending departure from the EU.
Since the EEA vision was first outlined in 2017, there have been questions about the UK’s involvement. The European Commission’s announcement last month of funding for networks of “European universities”, a key element of the EEA, has brought these questions into focus again.
The EEA, scheduled for implementation by 2025, aims to radically enhance the mutual recognition of higher education and school-leaver qualifications via national legislation; introduce a new EU student card containing academic records, aiding cross-border university applications; double the number of young people participating in the Erasmus+ exchange programme; and set a benchmark for all young people to have a good knowledge of two foreign languages.
In the 17 European university networks that succeeded in winning funding, just three UK universities are involved: Edinburgh, Essex and Warwick. In announcing the funding results, the European Commission tweeted a map of the EEA – without the UK included.
When asked by one Twitter user why the UK was not included in the EEA map despite UK universities being among the successful bidders for European universities funding, the commission’s Twitter account responded that the “continued participation of a UK partner in a European University after the withdrawal of the UK from the EU will depend on whether it leaves in an orderly fashion or not”.
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities and a professor of law at KU Leuven, warned that the UK was being “excluded” from the EEA by the EU.
He said: “The initial presentation of the EEA as an EU 27 initiative, the graphical presentation of the EEA without the UK, the growing threat of a possible no-deal Brexit and its financial consequences, and the reluctance of non-UK universities to take UK universities on board in European Universities alliances, has led to a very low participation [rate] of UK universities in [the European Universities] initiative.”
A second round of bids for European Universities funding will open later this year.
Professor Deketelaere said he hoped the commission would be “much clearer on the position of UK universities” when it opens that second round.
“As long as the UK is a full member of the EU, it should be fully treated like that, just like all 27 other member states, and not be left in the dark, as is now…the case,” he added.
But Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said it was “nonsense” to suggest that the UK had been improperly excluded from the EEA, given that UK universities were among the successful European universities networks.
The graphic tweeted by the European Commission has been the official map of the EEA since its conception in 2017 and “as the UK is probably leaving [the EU] before the Education Area is supposed to be completed by 2025, the map is not incorrect, just stating a sad fact”, he added.
The EEA will be a key part of the Erasmus+ programme. The UK could opt to join Erasmus+ as an associate member after Brexit if an agreement can be reached with the EU.
Dr Jorgensen said that for countries outside the EU “association to Erasmus would indeed be the cornerstone of participation” in the EEA.
The commission declined to offer a comment.
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