Do not lose sight of education in crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Following last month’s Bologna Process Ministerial Conference, Professor Helena Nazaré writes that expenditure in higher education should be deemed an investment rather than a cost, and exhorts governments not to ignore higher education as a by-product of the wider financial crisis.

Professor Helena Nazaré is the president of the European University Association.

"Last month’s Bologna Process Ministerial Conference in Bucharest brought together ministers responsible for higher education from the 47 European countries that now participate in this voluntary process, together with key stakeholder organisations including the European University Association (EUA).

The Bologna Ministerial Conferences (seven have been held since the launch of the Bologna Process in 1999) are designed to take stock of progress towards the “Bologna” objectives and to set goals for the future development of a European Higher Education Area. EUA’s work has shown that over the last decade, universities across Europe have implemented the overwhelming majority of structural reform elements agreed under Bologna – such as a common three-cycle degree system (bachelor, master, and doctorate), credit transfer systems, and the European diploma supplement. With the launch of the European Higher Education Area (in 2010),  the second decade now aims to build on these reforms in order to achieve the underlying aims such as increasing mobility and employability of graduates, improving quality of teaching and learning, and developing lifelong learning.

It is clear however, that the economic climate that prevailed during the first years of this higher education reform process has changed radically in recent years with the onset on the economic and financial crisis. This is why a key aspect of the conference in Bucharest was also to underline the critical role of higher education in helping Europe out of the present crisis and in enhancing the employability of Europe’s graduates.

Europe’s strength is that it has a large number of universities and other higher education institutions (over 4,000) with different traditions, missions and specific profiles. This is a competitive advantage and gives universities the opportunity to become strategic motors of local and regional development. This is why EUA stressed to Ministers that more than ever in the present challenging times that renewed efforts by all partners are needed to make sure that a strong European Higher Education Area (EHEA) becomes a reality for students, teachers and administrators in universities across Europe.

In particular, EUA, together with a number of other stakeholders, argued strongly for a firm commitment in the final communiqué (the political roadmap adopted at the end of each ministerial conference) to recognition of the crucial role of sustainable public funding for European higher education. Therefore, we are pleased that this document stresses that higher education should be at the “heart of our efforts to overcome the crisis” and we urge governments now to follow up on the commitment “to securing the highest possible level of public funding for higher education and drawing on other appropriate sources, as an investment in our future”.

Funding of higher education should not be seen by European governments as expenditure but as an investment for Europe’s future.  It is also important for the future of the European knowledge economy that higher education should not only be seen in terms of providing employability skills for graduates but also in terms of its key role in providing research-based teaching and learning in a supportive environment that promotes critical and independent thinking.

The Bucharest Communiqué also underlines that further efforts are required to widen overall access to higher education, raise completion rates, strengthen the link between teaching and research, and to improve mobility.

EUA and other stakeholders have actively called for efforts to improve mobility (for both students and staff) in Europe and we are pleased that ministers in Bucharest also adopted a separate mobility strategy for the European Higher Education Area. This elaborates on the target agreed at the 2009 ministerial conference, whereby at least 20% of those graduating in Europe in 2020 should have spent a study or training period abroad.

In moving to implementation of this strategy, universities will play a key role in driving mobility but increased governmental support will also be required in terms of funding (for mobility programmes) and in terms of removing the barriers that currently prevent many staff and students in Europe from becoming more mobile (such as portability of loans/pensions).

The Bologna Process has been one of the success stories in higher education over the last decade, and the European Higher Education Area which has been created is increasingly recognised and taken as an example in other world regions. However, it is crucial now that we look forward as there is still much unfinished business. This is why it is crucial there is a renewed effort from all stakeholders, and particularly from governments, to support the continued development of a strong European Higher Education Area."

European Commission

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