As the EUA conference gets under way in Bristol, David Jobbins reports on European integration
Europe is rarely high on the agenda for British universities but 2003 is the exception. It is the crunch year for the drive towards the European higher education area - the Bologna process that began with the Sorbonne declaration and gained real impetus with the endorsement of its aims by 29 education ministers in 1999.
This year also critical to the development of the European Research Area, which is being driven by the European Commission. European universities feel, however, that they are marginalised in that process because of the concentration in most countries of cutting-edge research in national agencies - such as France's CNRS or Germany's Max Planck institutes.
British universities are effectively sidelined in both processes because most of the Bologna changes are not an issue and the research is integrated in the university environment.
But the UK has a clear interest in engaging in the process. Its experiences of quality control and student finance are deeply relevant to the Bologna process. And if the process achieves its aim of significant convergence by the end of the decade as a way to make European universities internationally competitive, it is probably better to be part of that process than isolated in the global competition against the US, Australia and newer rivals in south and east Asia.
Bologna originated in the Sorbonne declaration signed by ministers of France, Germany, Italy and Britain in Paris. As a political initiative, it deliberately excluded the European Commission (much to Brussels' annoyance). Education ministers remained in control in Bologna, when 29 endorsed the process, with support from four or five more countries that were inside the European Union and the European Fair Trade Association, and in the emerging democracies of eastern Europe.
The EU is an important player in the process but is technically excluded from the objective of a common structure for degree courses, an issue devolved to member states.
Much of the running has been entrusted to the European University Association (EUA), which holds its conference and general assembly at Bristol University today and tomorrow.
The EUA was formed in 2001 by merging the Association of European Universities (CRE) and the Confederation of EU Rectors' Conferences. The association now represents 34 national rectors' conferences, 614 universities and eight affiliate members in 45 countries.
Strong political leadership from the first EUA president, Eric Froment, was critical. This combined with the sophisticated approach of the CRE's former secretary-general, Andreis Barblan, and his Brussels-based successor Lesley Wilson.
The EUA has been at the forefront of the international concerns over the implications for universities contained in the US-led effort to include education in the General Agreement on Trade in Services. It issued a joint declaration with the American Council on Education, has pioneered systematic quality assurance programmes in universities, and has been engaged in the process of reconstructing higher education in southeast Europe after the wars in the Balkans and Serbia/Kosovo.
Its primary aim is a coherent system of European higher education and research, based on shared values and achieved through active support and guidance to its member universities, enhancing their contribution to society.
The EUA has emphasised universities' double responsibility of teaching and research, encouraging heads of state and governments to "make more systematic use of this resource in the important process of consolidating and strengthening Europe's position in the perspective of a global competitive world, and in the creation of a European Area of Knowledge".
Ms Wilson said: "Universities have an important role to play because they are not concentrated in research institutes in certain parts of Europe.
There are universities that are good at some aspects of research all over EuropeI If you use them properly, they could be an important way of improving the situation in research.
"We think the European Commission should pay more attention to the role the universities can play in promoting development and innovation."
In Bristol, the focus will be on research and research-based training.
Issues to be covered include the geographical concentration of excellence, the true cost of university research, the place of small universities in a world of networks and centres of excellence, division of research capacity, and the structure of research in the social sciences and the humanities.
Philippe Busquin, the EU research commissioner who launched the idea of creating a European Research Area in February 2000, with the aim of making Europe the most dynamic economy in the world, will give his views on the role of the universities. Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser and head of the Office of Science and Technology, will outline the UK's approach to research in the higher education sector.
Bristol will also be the forum at which EUA officials will canvass opinions on the European Commission communication The Role of the Universities in the Europe of Knowledge . This is the first commission discussion document on universities - and officials suggest this could be one result of the much larger visibility that European universities have achieved by creating the EUA as their representative body at European level.
"As an association of institutions, we are increasingly becoming the focus of attention," an EUA statement said.
The association plans to respond to the communication by the beginning of May. While the Bristol meeting will deal with one strand, the association's convention in Graz, Austria, at the end of May is crucial to the Bologna process. It will prepare a policy statement to be presented to the Conference of European Education Ministers in Berlin in September.
The latest information on Bologna implementation across Europe will be on the table in Graz. Trends in Learning Structures in Higher Education III (Trends III) is based on a survey of all higher education institutions across Europe, all national rectors' conferences and other associations of higher education, all ministries participating in the Bologna process or having expressed their intention to do so, as well as student and employer organisations across Europe.
Some 760 questionnaires were received from institutions across 45 countries in Europe. Early data from Trends III will also be used to examine the closer integration of higher education from Southeast Europe into the proposed European Higher Education Area.
Roving quality assessors
Since 1990 the EUA's predecessor, the CRE, has offered a pan-European programme for institutional quality evaluation that focuses on management rather than academic matters.
Two visits of three to four days by rectors and former rectors, at the invitation of the university concerned, are based around a self-evaluation report. So far, 90 universities in 30 countries - in Europe and beyond - have been assessed.
Using European Commission finance, the EUA has set up a benchmarking exercise based on six issues. It received 137 applications from universities and has started with six networks across eight institutions.
It is also conducting a pilot exercise to establish how three subjects - history, veterinary science and physics - are validated across Europe.
The EUA also aims to establish a code of good practice for quality assurance at a European level.
EUA secretary-general Lesley Wilson said: "Quality is not just a national issue - it needs to be seen in a European perspective. I see enormous potential for the programme."
Rebuilding the Balkans
The European University Association's predecessor, the Association of European Universities (CRE), was involved in rebuilding universities in countries affected by the conflicts of the 1990s in the Balkan region.
In Kosovo, a two-year project of technical assistance for the development of higher education has ended.
The University of Pristina has started a reform of its teaching and learning processes using the Bologna model, including the implementation of the bachelor-master-PhD cycles and the introduction of the European credit and transfer system. Basic quality assurance procedures and a draft eight-year strategic development plan have been produced.
The EUA has taken steps to further academic cooperation with the Serb-language University of Mitrovica in north Kosovo.
It carried out evaluations of all five Serbian universities, which were presented in Belgrade last November. During the conference the late Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic - assassinated on March 12 - supported reform. Major problems include a massive dropout rate and a powerful faculty structure. In Bosnia university rectorates are left with largely representational functions and no planning role.