European education ministers wish universities to lead the movement towards a system of collaboration. Kenneth Edwards considers a great opportunity
Last month's signing of the Bologna declaration by 31 ministers of education, including Baroness Blackstone, or their representatives was a remarkable event.
The signatories to the The European Higher Education Area represented 29 countries from across Europe, including all 15 European Union member states.
This statement includes an agreement to work towards a Europe-wide framework to allow comparisons of degrees and other higher education qualifications. An important recommendation was to adopt a system based on two cycles - the first, an undergraduate phase "lasting a minimum of three years" leading to a qualification that would be a requirement for entry into the second, or postgraduate, phase.
At an academic conference before the signing it became clear that considerable changes have occurred in recent years in a number of European countries, including Germany, France and Italy, in the direction of creating two clear cycles. Thus, the ministerial declaration reflects changes that national governments are actively leading. The Bologna Declaration was itself a follow-up to a declaration signed at the Sorbonne a year ago by the ministers of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France.
This new event shows that higher education is high enough on the agenda of national governments for so many ministers to meet in one place. A second point is to note that ministers are now taking a lead in what they might perceive to be a vacuum created by the scandals around the European Commission and also against the background of a potentially muscle-flexing new European Parliament.
So there is an interesting contrast between the positive activity shown by national governments across Europe on the one hand and an apparent disenchantment in European institutions demonstrated by the low turnout in the European parliamentary elections.
So where does higher education fit in? Universities have international missions and their fundamental values are universal. In Europe the universities can trace their origins to the creation of the medieval university, of which Bologna itself was the first. The current interest of ministers in evolving national systems in order to facilitate opportunities for collaboration should be encouraged. At the same time universities need to be vigilant in order to prevent any attempts to impose a bureaucratic solution. The developments must be evolutionary and respect national characteristics and the fundamental autonomy of institutions. This autonomy is essential if the higher education system, as a whole, is to have the freedom to experiment in order to adapt to changing circumstances.
The importance of being involved in this discussion was demonstrated at Bologna, where I had an opportunity, as president of the Association of European Universities (CRE), to outline the main findings at the beginning of the ministerial meeting. I believe there is a great opportunity for the universities of Europe to have an important collective input into these changes that are now taking place. For this reason I believe there will be many benefits to be gained by creating a single organisation to represent all higher education in Europe from the two existing bodies: the CRE and the Confederation of Rectors Conferences of EU Member States.
It is important not only that we have an input into the changes that are now happening in the framework within which higher education operates. The European universities collectively can offer a great deal of assistance to each other. The damage done to the University of Pristina and to other Balkan universitiescreates a particular need to which European universities should respond.
The stimulus to cooperation among European universities created by the European Commission programmes (Erasmus, Tempus and now Socrates) has been of significant importance. But now Europe is seen as being much larger than the area represented by the member states of the EU.
One of the significant characteristics of the past decade has been the enthusiasm with which those universities that were behind the former Iron Curtain have for joining the European university movement. While the constitutional and political evolution of Europe may have slowed down and possibly be running out of steam, the higher education system is showing many signs of wanting to work on the European scale.
Ministers of education seem to be enthusiastic supporters of this trend, and I believe there are great opportunities for the higher education system itself to lead these developments.
Kenneth Edwards is vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester and president of the CRE.