Member states poised to water down plans for European degree

Plans for a legal statute to smooth cross-border working were embraced by those struggling with national reforms, but most EU governments are getting cold feet

March 16, 2022
slow sign

Plans for cross-border European degrees are faltering over worries that Brussels’ efforts to ease transnational cooperation could encroach on national or institutional decision-making. 

Diplomats are split over how warmly to embrace the strategy for universities that the European Commission unveiled in January, with most wanting to water down the idea of a joint European degree underpinned by a new EU legal statute, Times Higher Education understands.

Within weeks of the strategy being published, EU governments’ draft position on the strategy had already dropped the word “statute” after legal advisers said it lacked a definition in EU law. The joint European degree has also had a lukewarm reception, with diplomats agreeing only on baby steps towards a “label” issued alongside a recognised qualification. 

EU officials said that a cautious majority of countries, including Germany, Ireland, Latvia and Sweden, had won out against those that were fully behind the statute and joint degree ideas, which included Italy, Portugal and Spain. 

“Most member states would have gone into this cautiously, given that education is a national competence. When anything is reaching into that we have to make sure it’s done correctly,” said an EU diplomat from a country pushing back on the commission proposals. 

They said there were also concerns that the strategy would impinge on universities’ freedom to structure degrees how they wish. “Institutional and national autonomy needs to be preserved in this. We’re quite happy with where the compromise has landed.” 

Another EU diplomat involved in discussions said those southern countries that backed the strategy most strongly did so to use the EU initiative as “leverage in their countries”. “They are maybe more in need of fundamental reform of their systems,” they said. 

The European degree initiative is closely linked to the development of European University alliances, the “European universities” dreamed up by French president Emmanuel Macron to rekindle continental cohesion. Sixty alliances, covering more than 500 institutions, are set to have been created by mid-2024. Some are already moving towards more formal mergers, but face continuing challenges tied to national regulation and funding shortfalls.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, policy coordinator at the European University Association, said ministers had already signed up to important transnational education reforms through the Bologna Process, a club of countries with shared higher education standards, which includes every EU nation and 22 others from across Eurasia.

She said if EU efforts kept step with the process they could help finish the job, such as on quality assurance for joint programmes, agreed by Bologna ministers in Yerevan in 2015. “Some countries have implemented this, others partially, and others not,” she said, adding that wherever governments discussed things, reforms would not happen “if they don’t move at home”.

Ms Claeys-Kulik said that the EU’s €700 billion (£558 billion) post-pandemic rescue pot had also been influential in reform discussions in southern countries, while among northern beneficiaries the effect on sector changes has been harder to discern. “It’s an interesting area to see how countries themselves use EU money or political inspiration in their own national discussions on reforms,” she said.

Diplomats have met seven times to discuss the strategy, with talks focusing on the degree and statute. Senior staff from EU countries’ Brussels representations will meet at the end of March to agree a final compromise, which is due to be signed off by education ministers on 5 April.

A spokeswoman for Latvia’s permanent representation to the EU said the country broadly backed efforts to improve higher education cooperation, including by using new legal instruments or a European degree. But, she said, it would be “premature to limit the exploratory process or to confirm commitment to these instruments at this stage”.


Print headline: Member states poised to water down cross-border European degree plans

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