Original publication: October 2017
Authors: ACA: Irina Ferencz, Bernd Wächter
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Modernisation of higher education

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This study, titled “A renewed EU agenda for higher education” was produced by staff of the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA) – a Brussels-based organisation focused on the internationalisation of higher education – in the period June to October 2017. This analysis was carried out for the Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) of the European Parliament (EP), and meant to directly support the work of the committee in the area of higher education. The study is, nevertheless, expected to be of relevance also for other EU institutions and higher education stakeholder organisations.


In line with the contract specifications, this study does the following, in relation to the European Commission’s Communication “A renewed EU agenda for higher education”, published in May 2017 (hereafter referred to as the 2017 communication):

  • Analyses the policy developments since the Commission’s 2011 agenda (hereafter the 2011 communication) for the modernisation of Europe’s higher education systems and assess these developments against the aims of the agenda.
  • Summarises the most important achievements, shortcomings and challenges, with a view to assessing the effectiveness of the policy measures taken to reach the objectives set out in the 2011 agenda.
  • Assesses the renewed EU agenda in the light of these achievements, shortcomings & challenges and its renewed objectives.
  • Highlights key issues likely to be of concern to Member States and makes recommendations for actions by the Committee including follow-up with other major stakeholders.
Key findings

Below is an overview of the key findings, by section, as further detailed below in the analysis.

As far as the policy background is concerned, the study highlights that within the EU context, (higher) education is a field in which the European Commission, in particular, has relatively recent and looser powers, compared to other policy areas, policy-making being governed by the principles of the Open Method of Coordination (OMC). Nevertheless, the European Commission has been an active agenda-setter, driver and monitor of developments in the field of higher education, with a very active role in the Education and Training 2020 Strategic Framework (ET2020). Further on, the idea of “modernising” EU higher education dates back to the early 2000s and is closely liked to the Lisbon Strategy, of making the union “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”. There is evidence that the cooperation between EU Member States has significantly grown in recent years in the field of higher education, guided by objectives and targets set at EU level.

The comparison between the 2011 communication on the modernisation of higher education and the 2017 communication on a renewed agenda for higher education reveals a number of interesting observations. The 2011 communication on the modernisation agenda has a predominant emphasis on employability and on the contribution that the European higher education sector can make to the relaunch of the EU economy, setting related tasks for HEIs and MS, as well as for the EC. In turn, the 2017 communication on a renewed EU agenda for higher education addresses these emplyoment concerns, which remain a core pillar of the strategy, but also goes beyond, exploring the contribution that higher education can make to tackling wider societal challenges; it offers, as such, a more integrated approach, but also much higher expectations vis-à-vis Member States and particularly HEIs.

A number of communications have been released by the European Commission in the period between the 2011 and 2017 communications on related topics, namely on skills development and skills mismatches, the internationalisation of EU higher education and its attractiveness in the world, digitalisation and the use of ICTs in (higher) education, as well as wider policy documents touching on education. Overall, these initiatives are mutuallysupportive and mutually-enhancing. They reference related past and upcoming policy initiatives and detail related goals, as well as action lines and support measures. There is an effort to better align the EU policy documents. Nevertheless, from a user’s point of view, these initiatives could seem overwhelming, both in number and in scope, therefore further mainstreaming would be advisable in order to guarantee better ‘absorption’ at Member State and HEIs level.

As for the progress made towards the objectives of the 2011 communication, in the period 2011 – 2017, significant advancements have been made in terms of data collection in key areas of the modernisation of higher education agenda. Nevertheless, evaluation of progress remains limited in some key areas, not only due to limited availability of data, but also to the fact that data often captures outputs rather than outcomes and impact. Data limitations aside, there is evidence of considerable improvements in the priority areas set in the 2011 communication, as well as of penetration of EU-level objectives into Member States’ policies and HEIs practice. Important challenges remain however, and require further concerted action – particularly with a view to supporting dialogues for enhancing teaching and teaching excellence, and developing more sustainable funding models.

And last but not least, assessing the fitness for purpose of the 2017 communication, the analysis points to the fact that 2017 communication builds on work carried out in the period 2011 – 2017, through a number of mutually-supportive policy measures, and by action at Member State, HEIs and EC level. It is informed by developments occurring since the 2011 communication, relying on a growing body of data, peer learning activities at Members State and HEIs level, and good practice examples. The communication is showing continuity of the 2011 agenda, which can be seen positively – through the need to keep addressing developments in the same core areas of higher aducation – but also more critically, as not fully innovative. A number of changes can nevertheless be observed in the policy discourse and target setting between the 2011 and the 2017 communications. The latter communication and developments in the period 2011 – 2017 show: better integration, yet growing complexities; less normativeness, but some evidence gaps persisting; growing expectations towards HEIs, yet less investment and commitment; more data and more evidence-based policy-making, but still some way to go; skills and employability as first priority still, and this despite growing societal challenges; a narrower focus on STE(A)M rather than multi-disciplinarity; more announced support for teaching and teaching excellence, but not a given and not un-challenged; and an almost complete absence of internationalisation activities and contributions.

Table 1: Priority areas of the 2011 and the 2017 communications

Recommendations are thus put forward, for the CULT committee to focus its follow-up work to the 2017 communication in five areas – sector dialogue on teaching enhancement, addressing the funding challenge, mainstreaming internationalisation in the four priorities, supporting a wider disciplinary focus and working to ensure that HEIs, industry and the reginal actors are on board. The specific recommendations are as follows:

  • Recommendation 1 – Support the centrality of teaching and contribute to further enhance teaching excellence
  • Recommendation 2 – Working to narrow the funding gap
  • Recommendation 3 – Showing that internationalisation is a tool systematically contributing to the communication’s objectives
  • Recommendation 4 – Support multidisciplinarity and diversity, instead of the STE(A)M prioritisation
  • Recommendation 5 – Make the agenda better known at HEIs level, by industry and regional actors

The analysis was carried out based on a thorough literature review of available data and information sources in the areas covered by the 2011 and the 2017 communications. A wide variety of sources was reviewed: policy documents issued by the EU institutions (e.g. European Commission communications, European Parliament resolutions, Council conclusions), regular data collections at European, and when appropriate member state level (e.g. Eurostat statistics, the annual Education and Training Monitor, the EUROSTUDENT survey, etc.), commissioned research by EU institutions or studies by independent bodies, position papers by stakeholder organisations and examples of good practice at national and HEIs level.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/602-002

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