Education Commissioner Ján Figel': Enabling European higher Education to make its full contribution to the Knowledge Economy and Society, EAC Conference

February 11, 2005

Brussels, 10 February 2005

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome you all to this debate on the key policies that will shape the future of European higher education. I would like to start my presentation by emphasising that today’s Conference is part of our joint endeavour to build up the European society and economy of the knowledge era, within the framework of the Lisbon Strategy.

As you know, the Union has long devoted its efforts primarily to the promotion of mobility, by means of programmes like ERASMUS in higher education or Marie-Curie in research. Mobility remains a very important goal for all of us, especially as we are preparing the next generation of programmes as a means to boost exchange and cooperation in higher education throughout Europe.

However, over the last five years we have entered a new phase in the growing-together of Europe’s higher education, both in the wake of the Bologna Declaration and within the framework of the Lisbon Strategy: a phase of change and reforms at national and institutional level, within the European context and in the light of worldwide developments.

The aims of the Bologna process are to create more compatibility within European higher education and to increase its readability - and hence its attractiveness - within and outside Europe by means of a set of convergent reforms undertaken in each of the participating countries.

The same aims are, a fortiori, also important goals for the future of the European Union, and this is why the Commission has supported the Bologna process and continues to do so. Moreover, a similar agenda for change in higher education has been drawn up for the EU as part of its overall Lisbon Strategy.

The need for profound changes in education systems as a condition for the success of the Lisbon Strategy was acknowledged by the European Council right from the beginning. This paved the way for the adoption of a specific work programme called “Education & Training 2010” which sets out the main European objectives in these areas.

When adopting this agenda for change in 2002, Ministers of education emphasised 3 particularly important political goals which are of direct relevance to your work today:

The first one is that by 2010 European education and institutions should be seen as a world reference for quality and relevance; this applies in particular to higher education, and you will today discuss the conditions for quality and excellence at institutional and system level;

The second and maybe most profound political goal is to create between Europe’s diverse education systems “a sufficient level of compatibility” in order to allow citizens to take effectively advantage of this diversity rather than being constrained by it; what a “sufficient level of compatibility” concretely means is what you have to determine when talking about quality assurance or the definition of a European framework of reference for qualifications;

The third broad goal set for Europe is that by 2010 it should have become, once again, the preferred destination of students, scholars and researchers from other world regions; the need to enhance our universities’ attractiveness at home and abroad is also a core topic of your discussions today.

The 2002 European Council of Barcelona also set another important goal for the EU for 2010: to invest 3% of GDP in research, development and innovation activities. The work of the Commissioner and the DG in charge of this area has shown the decisive role of university-based research in this process and has identified the main areas of change/reforms needed. They largely coincide with those required for better education and training.

For all these reasons, the Commission 2 years ago issued a Communication on the role of universities in the Europe of knowledge. It covered both the higher education and the research aspects and served as a basis for a Europe-wide consultation of all stakeholders, including the higher education community of institutions, teachers and students, governments and industry. Today’s conference builds on this discussion. In the meantime, the European Commission and the Council, when looking last year into the implementation of the Education & Training strand of the Lisbon Strategy, stressed that the need to accelerate reforms in education systems was particularly acute at the higher education level.

While acknowledging fully the importance of the Bologna reforms, the EU Lisbon agenda needs to address many other aspects of higher education policies. Among these, are issues such as funding, the training of teachers, scientists and researchers, the contribution of universities to growth, employment, social cohesion and regional development, etc. There could be no clearer confirmation of the crucial role of higher education in the Europe of knowledge and in the Lisbon Strategy.

One of the strongest reasons for optimism about the future of European universities and higher education in general is that we are now in a new situation where the agendas for change of the Bologna process, the Lisbon Strategy for education and for the European Research Area largely coincide and reinforce each other.

Since this Conference has its origin in the consultation on the role of universities in the Europe of knowledge, I would now like to comment on the main message that emerged from the consultation, namely that universities expect a lot from Europe – a lot more than we have provided hitherto and maybe a lot more than we can provide in the future.

Universities are well aware that most calls for change have their origin in European and international developments linked to the knowledge revolution and to globalisation in all its forms, and they seek support to prepare and implement the necessary reforms.

In addition, the vast majority of respondents, both universities and other stakeholders, seem to be broadly in agreement with the diagnosis of strengths and weaknesses of European higher education and with the main directions for future action. I think the same could be said in the area of research, in the light of the outcomes of last year’s Liège conference on the future of university-based research.

This means that we have now reached a stage where the main emphasis is no longer on setting goals, but rather on the means to achieve them: even though universities know where they should be heading to and are willing to undertake the necessary changes, many regret that they are not in a position to do so, for two main reasons which feature prominently on the agenda of your work today:

One is the lack of funding for the process of reform; genuinely renovating curricula - in order to make them more flexible, more learner-centred, more relevant to professional life and to society, more easily recognisable internationally and more efficient - is certainly not an easy task that can be done at zero cost.

The same is true with respect to the training of university staff for professional management, the setting-up of quality assurance or career guidance systems, the creation of effective student recruitment and support policies, the development of lifelong learning, the maintenance of the right networks or the strengthening of an international image.

All these tasks have their own cost, over and above those related to the running of ongoing education and research activities. I fear that if, in some countries, universities do not have the financial means to fund these measures, they may be placed at a lasting disadvantage with respect to others.

I am certain that no country or region in Europe wants this to happen. Europe’s citizens, society and economy demand these changes. The Commission will do whatever it can to assist and encourage them.

The second obstacle on the way to modernisation mentioned by universities is that in several countries the national regulatory framework does not allow them to undertake the necessary changes; this raises the issues of autonomy and governance; university autonomy is not some old-fashioned medieval privilege, it has been recognised over time because it has a “raison d’être” which is precisely to place higher education and research in a position to make its full contribution to society.

Seen in this light, autonomy and efficiency are not only compatible: autonomy is actually a basic condition for responsiveness; this is why it should be addressed today from the specific angle of adaptability and incentive for change.

There is a corollary to autonomy and strategic management of universities, which is diversity; the Lisbon goals could not be achieved by means of a system where all universities would want to pursue the same goals and develop similar services and strategies for similar groups of learners and enterprises.

Uniformity leads to the exclusion of all those who are not in tune with the single model available. While we need to build up more transparency and cohesion in the structure and nomenclature on our degrees, we also need more diversity than hitherto concerning target groups, exit and entry points, mix of content and competencies, learning methods, type and importance of research, etc.

The European common framework of reference for qualifications – which Ministers and the Commission agreed to start developing – needs to accommodate this diversity. Quality assurance and accreditation systems should pay specific attention to the right of institutions and programmes to be different, to be better and to innovate.

This is also the condition for the emergence and recognition of outstanding quality or, as we tend to call it, excellence. For excellence to develop in some places, the possibility to increase quality must be open to all higher education institutions and departments both in education, research and innovation.

While excellence needs to be explicitly encouraged and supported, it can only emerge from a terrain permeated by openness and by a shared “quality culture” across the board.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Without higher and more efficient public and private investment in quality education, there will be neither growth, nor more and better jobs, nor greater social cohesion. We have no intention to replicate in Europe the US system, but it would be wrong to believe that we can emulate them in the knowledge economy if we continue to invest per capita less than half of what they spend on higher education.

The figures are hard and hurting: 2.3% of GDP in the US, 1.1% in Europe on average, and actually even less than 1% in some member countries. Therefore, the questions of how our universities are funded, how they are managed and how to ensure the quality and relevance of what they deliver to society will not vanish and should be addressed urgently and seriously.

Within the framework of the Lisbon Strategy we should do this together; we need to mobilise all the tools for action and all the sources of funding that are available at the level of the Union in order to enable universities to release their full potential; we also need to exploit for this all the possibilities that exist within the Open Method of Coordination, which offers the unique advantage of abiding by the basic principle of subsidiarity while at the same time emphasising the value added of joint, coordinated action in the EU context.

In the Open Method of Coordination, one of the Commission’s roles is to draw attention to critical situations and possible solutions and to provide opportunities for policy makers – at system as well as institutional level – to take inspiration from ideas, experiences and reforms undertaken or planned elsewhere.

This is what we have tried to provide through the Communication, the ensuing consultation and today through this conference, by means of a debate around the key questions set out in the “discussion paper”.

The preparation, adoption and implementation of the necessary reforms are, however, your responsibility. This is not an easy task, neither for governments nor for universities. But the Bologna and Lisbon agendas coincide in the acknowledgement of the main reasons why these reforms are so necessary:

  • The need to facilitate and stimulate the mobility of students, teachers, researchers and graduates, in order to offset the negative consequences of the fragmentation of European higher education and research;
  • The need to ensure fair and effective access for graduates from all EU countries to the European labour market; this hinges on attuning studies to the changing needs of society, but also on the attention paid to making qualifications easily understandable and recognisable outside their own country;
  • The need to enhance the efficiency of each higher education system and institution, in particular through reduced failure and dropout rates and the reduction of excess study time beyond the official duration of curricula;
  • The need to put European higher education in a position to attract the best talent from within and from abroad, and in this way to promote our cultures, our values, our science and technology and our social model in the world.
In recalling these good reasons for action, I am not only underlining the role of universities in all dimensions of the Lisbon Strategy, such as future growth, better jobs, social integration and citizenship. I am also calling on national, regional and institutional authorities to undertake the necessary reforms in higher education, as an absolutely key factor of success in the knowledge economy and society.

What is required is mainly an investment in change and modernisation within a European perspective. It is not just more money to get “more of the same”: my call to invest more and better is inspired by the vision of universities making their full contribution to national development as well as to the Lisbon Strategy and playing their full role in the Europe of knowledge.

This reflects my conviction that sufficient investment in, and sound management of higher education are core determinants of the future of each region and country in Europe and of the future of Europe in the world.

Concerning this future, the Commission will continue and, as far as, possible increase its efforts to inform and support this indispensable process of change and reform. This afternoon the Director General of DG Education and Culture will outline the next steps in our joint work as seen from the Commission’s perspective.

For my part, I will conclude my remarks by emphasising that universities and higher education are and will remain a high priority for me and for the European Commission. I trust you have seen that in the Lisbon mid-term review which was presented last week by President Barroso, the Commission is proposing to the European Council to re-launch and re-focus the Lisbon Strategy around 3 main goals.

In this new version of the Lisbon agenda for reforms, the role of universities in building the future of Europe remains as important as before. The recent report of the high level group chaired by Mr Wim Kok stressed the importance of building a highly performing R&D system; there is not the least doubt about this, but the Kok report failed to underline explicitly that it is only possible if based on a system of strong and vibrant higher education institutions.

More investments in research and in higher education need to go together, and should largely serve to reform and renovate the sector in the direction of quality and excellence, flexibility and responsiveness and openness to Europe and the world.

I would like to add that, in line with what I just said, the strategies for the future development of our higher education are not an Education-only task within the European Commission. The participation of directors and staff from other DGs, who are in charge of policy and funding priorities for research, employment, economic growth and regional development, is therefore of utmost importance, and I wish to thank them for their presence and their contribution.

Let me finish by a short comment about one aspect that makes today’s conference an unusual one. Since our intention is to extend the discussion beyond the circles of education, we invited the directors-general in charge of higher education to come together with their main colleagues from the ministries of economy or finance.

I understand that this has not been easy in all countries and that our invitation strategy has been only partly successful for this first attempt. I am nonetheless confident that the dialogue between the sectors of education, employment and the economy needs to be pursued and deepened, both within national governments and at European level.

I wish you all a very successful discussion and I am looking forward to the outcomes of your debate.

Thank you.

Item source: SPEECH/05/81 Date: 10/02/2005

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