More harmonisation of higher education systems across the European Union may be needed if its universities are to continue to compete on the global stage, it has been claimed.
Taking an unfashionable standpoint in the light of rising anti-European sentiment in the UK and some other countries, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, told a conference that EU-wide legislation may be required to enable the truly free movement of students and researchers.
Speaking at the Reinventing Higher Education conference at IE University in Madrid last week, Professor Deketelaere warned that “we are not going to survive” if Europe continues with 28 separate sets of research systems and funding arrangements.
“Everything we do in the educational field and the research field is bottom up and voluntary without allowing, as 28 member states, the EU to take any legislative initiative and harmonise a situation where there’s free circulation of students and free circulation of researchers,” said Professor Deketelaere.
Taking part in a discussion on how European universities could move beyond the Bologna Process, which attempted to standardise higher education qualifications across the union, the professor of law at the University of Leuven described the wide variety of tuition fee arrangements as being among a set of “obstacles” that prevented the introduction of innovations such as joint cross-border degrees.
“If we want to survive competition with the US, China and the [emerging] Brics [nations], we will have to get our act together in Europe and act as one bloc from the higher education and research perspective,” Professor Deketelaere added.
Enthusiasm for Bologna was not universal, with the conference hearing how one unnamed Nobel prizewinner had described the process as “the worst thing that ever happened” because it forced him to decide what he was going to teach 18 months in advance.
“We know innovation and control don’t go together,” said Peter Lorange, owner and president of Zurich’s Lorange Institute of Business.
Professor Deketelaere conceded that the process had perhaps gone too far in some areas, with standardisation sometimes posing a challenge for lecturers when students from a wide variety of degree programmes took the same modules.
But other speakers argued that there could be benefits to more integration.
Paul Norris, deputy managing director of the UK National Recognition Information Agency, a qualifications body, said that the introduction of degrees that could be easily recognised across borders had been a major help to small and medium-sized businesses.
He suggested that the next challenge was to produce degree statements that told potential employers not just the name and level of a qualification but also about the transferable skills that it gave to a graduate.
Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, a senior analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, shared surveys that indicated that students who took part in more practical learning tasks such as group assignments and work placements tended to be more innovative in their careers.
Dr Vincent-Lancrin suggested that wider adoption of practical learning methods could help to create the next generation of graduates needed for “our innovation societies”. He argued that although Bologna had helped to harmonise degree structures: “It is not very clear it has had so much impact on pedagogies and the way institutions have delivered education across Europe, and perhaps this is the next challenge.”
Filling the gap: employer contributions to degree costs
Employers could help to fill the funding gap in European higher education by contributing to the cost of tuition faced by their graduate recruits.
That was the suggestion made by Charles Hardy, education engagement lead at social network LinkedIn, when he spoke in a debate about “fostering mutual engagement” between universities and industry at the Reinventing Higher Education conference in Madrid last week.
After other participants debated what level of tuition fees was necessary to support European universities, Mr Hardy suggested that employers could pay “to have a graduate from a certain university”.
“The employers are taking the value of the education that’s provided and would certainly provide more input if they were financially paying to receive these graduates,” Mr Hardy said. “It would also help institutions with the financial gap without making it financially elitist to go university for the students.”
The levy could be varied according to the size of the employer, added Mr Hardy. He has led the launch of LinkedIn’s university rankings, which are based on the career outcomes of graduates.
Christian Schutz, global head of university relations at Siemens, said that the funding of higher education scholarships already formed an important part of the role of a socially responsible employer.
He argued that tuition fees could “tremendously improve education” but added that universities could help by reducing the amount they spent on administration.
Sabine Hansen Peck, senior vice-president for human resources, communications and branding at Amadeus IT Group, said she was in favour of “affordable” tuition but suggested that the cost of higher education in the US had made universities focus on their graduates’ employability.
The long history of offering courses on topics such as CV writing and interview skills across the Atlantic is something European universities could learn from, she argued.