Transnational degrees will take European HE to the next level

Despite policy pushes, joint degrees remain a regulatory maze. The new European Degree might be the solution, says Kurt Willems

February 12, 2023
A map of Europe
Source: iStock

More than 20 years ago, the Bologna Process committed 49 countries in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) to implementing compatible higher education systems to boost mobility, equitable access and the competitiveness of the European higher education system. The recent creation of European Universities is intended to take transnational collaboration to the next level by institutionalising it in cross-continental groupings of institutions formed around particular themes. But the initiative has also made the remaining legal obstacles to collaboration ever more visible and troublesome.

The complexity of national legislation has become especially apparent when it comes to the development and implementation of joint degrees. We at Una Europa, an alliance of 11 research-intensive universities from all corners of Europe, have experienced this first-hand with our joint bachelor of arts in European studies – Europe’s first truly joint bachelor’s degree. It took tremendous effort by professionals and academics across our partner institutions to get this over the line, and while we were prepared for some of the hurdles, others took us by surprise.

The differences in national legislative systems across the EHEA are complex and manifold, ranging from limitations around interdisciplinarity and curriculum design to divergences in tuition fees and specific requirements that determine the selection of students. With creative, ad hoc solutions, we have stretched the limits of what is feasible today, but we are more convinced than ever that systemic change is needed.

This experience has shaped our interest in the European Degree initiative, known as ED-AFFICHE, which was first put forward by the European Commission as a cornerstone of the European Education Area and has become a flagship initiative under the European Strategy for Universities, launched last year.

As with the European Universities initiative itself, we now see unprecedented momentum for meaningful change. Together with five partner alliances – 4EU+, CHARM-EU, EC2U, EU-CONEXUS and Unite! – we are now preparing to pilot the European Degree label as a direct enabler of change.

The 51 participating universities are at the forefront of joint degree development and share distinctive insights into its most pressing challenges. Legislative obstacles may well differ from country to country, but this does not mean that we cannot find common solutions. Regional and national governments have a renewed interest in working with higher education institutions to facilitate transnational collaboration, and key players in accreditation and quality assurance are ready to contribute.

Building on the combined experiences of our partners – both challenges and successes – we will take a close look at the state of play around joint programmes in Europe today and shape a European Degree label that drives impact and excellence.

Even more importantly, we aim to provide an open platform for dialogue between universities and their national and regional legislatures and governments. More room to experiment in the context of high-quality transnational collaboration is urgently needed. Several systems across Europe have already adopted such a flexible and open approach, the early results of which will hopefully inspire broader take-up.

An exchange of best practice and a process of mutual learning at European level will ultimately lead to transnational strategies that simplify the development and implementation of joint degrees – not just for European University Alliances but for the sector as a whole. And this can all be done through the existing Bologna tools; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

As with any new policy initiative, however, maintaining a dedicated funding instrument will be crucial. Such funding will both encourage higher education institutions to establish European Degrees and incentivise national and regional legislators to enable their universities to take advantage of this initiative by removing regulatory hurdles.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Only such practical support at the European level will realise the full potential of the European Degree to catalyse the further implementation of the key Bologna commitments and enable a step change in the quality and global attractiveness of European higher education.

Kurt Willems is professor of education law at KU Leuven and project coordinator of the ED-AFFICHE project.


Print headline: Degrees sans frontières

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