This article is part of our special report Shaping the future of higher education.
Over the coming years, the professional higher education sector must smooth educational differences among the European regions, boost local employment and provide students with the new skills needed in a changing labour market, the head of a European higher education association told EURACTIV in an interview.
Since 2015, Stéphane Lauwick has been the president of EURASHE, which represents the interests of institutions in higher education, such as universities of applied science and university colleges. He is the Director of the Institut Universitaire de Technologie (IUT) in Le Havre, France.
Establishing and improving links between professional higher education institutions and the territory is very high on EURASHE’s agenda. “We realise that the situation of professional higher education is quite different from one country to another, and I would say from one region to another,” Lauwick said.
The range of issues may differ but the most frequent problem concerns the crucial articulation between training, higher education and the job market, a phenomenon that Lauwick calls “skills mismatch”.
He pointed out that the labour market needs are not addressed by education, which is sometimes too theoretical. And there is also the issue of well-trained students who cannot find employment locally.
“And well-trained people who don’t find a job in their regions tend to migrate,” he said. Unmet expectations could often worsen the situation, as some educated students are not paid properly after their studies, or their acquired skills are not recognised by the local companies.
“We find that emphasising the regional, sometimes even the local connections, is the best way to cope with this issue,” Lauwick said, adding that it is important to establish a dialogue with both the business sector and the local authorities.
According to Lauwick’s experience, local companies respond extremely well, if stimulated, and quickly identify challenges and main barriers to regional development.
He said it is relatively easy to speak to big international firms, as they have training departments, but it is more difficult to connect with small and medium-sized (SMEs) enterprises. “And it is a major problem because most of the jobs in Europe come from SMEs,” he added.
EURASHE is focusing its efforts on the ‘new job skills’, a notion developed by researchers who are trying to address future challenges in a changing labour market. However, these new skills go beyond innovation, entrepreneurship or digital literacy.
“The main idea is that the student has to reposition himself to expect the unexpected, to work in situations where nobody has shown him what to do,” he said.
In his training, Lauwick reproduces, for instance, a major last-minute change to see how the students react. The goal is to understand if the students are going to be lost or are going to ask the right questions even in an abruptly changed scenario.
New job skills definitions come up every new year, which is why there is a need for strong cooperation between higher education institutions and businesses, according to EURASHE’s president.
“It is an ongoing process and it is a constant flux of information and training on both sides, starting of course from the request of the companies,” he said.
Another issue EURASHE is trying to address is how to reconcile theoretical knowledge and practice and make all the theoretical skills operational.
Lauwick noticed that traditional universities have always been interested in thinking and designing courses that equip students with the right thinking.
“Our students, indeed, think well. Now the challenge to enable students who think well to work well,” he said.
Future of higher education
“If you need a concrete answer on how the higher education environment will be in 10-years’ time, I don’t have it. And that’s part of the uncertainty I was speaking of earlier,” Lauwik said.
Although the traditional division in bachelor, master and doctorate programs will still exist, he said, they will be flanked by smaller courses that will involve a wider public.
“We will have good students but also students that are not that good, so a much more diverse public and, also, we will have to respond to the challenges of retraining and upskilling,” he said.
The issues of lifelong and work-based learning, in particular, need some efforts as the educational harmonisation process at the EU level, the so-called Bologna process, is currently mostly oriented towards young students, according to Lauwick.
But the lack of apprenticeship programmes in every part of Europe, an essential prerequisite of professional higher education, should also be examined by the Bologna process.
Asked about EU-funded programs like Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, he said he expects both to promote excellence, something they already do reasonably well.
“We have a very good dialogue with the Commission on Horizon Europe and we have been working on that with some MEPs as well,” he said.
One of the scopes of EURASHE is, indeed, offering a platform for people working in the sector also to share best practices and identify areas of excellence.
“Of course, we’re not going to change several centuries of higher education in two years. We need a lot of work and time,” Lauwick concluded.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]