A GROUNDBREAKING programme of closer university integration on a European scale is getting under way.
The project to create a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010, is supported by 38 countries. They have agreed to institute such important features as a common pattern that distinguishes undergraduate and postgraduate courses (not the case at the moment); systems of credit and credit transfer; diploma supplements that make every qualification “readable” in other parts of the EHEA; a structure for quality assurance and such European features as joint degrees and integrated programmes of training and research.
Last week, in the latest stage of the process, the Austrian university city of Graz hosted the third convention organised by the representative body of European university leaders, the European University Association, alongside the university presidents and rectors from the greater Europe of the EHEA – the European Union (EU) countries, the remaining European Free Trade Association countries, the EU accession states and five Balkan nations.
The aim of Graz is to make it possible to prepare a policy statement for a summit declaration in September in Berlin by the 38 ministers of education.
The theme is convergence in research and quality assessment. The EUA position takes research as an intrinsic element of the European university, enabling it to fulfil a role of disciplined enquiry.
But there are also concrete questions. Can there be a common line on the nature, structure and optimal duration of the PhD in the developing knowledge economy, cooperation and promotion of joint doctorates, strategies for reducing barriers to doctoral and post-doctoral mobility?
And how can universities better exploit their role of disseminating knowledge at regional level? On quality assessment, the convention members intend to frame recommendations, such as one on avoiding a burdensome quality assurance bureaucracy.
Berlin will thus take its place in a collective university process, unprecedented in modern times, that started at Bologna in 1999. That summit advocated most of the structural criteria for convergence. The Prague summit of 2001 added a new element by formally recognising universities' public service role, and included for the first time the EU commission and student bodies as participants.
The intriguing question, given Europe's universities' jealously guarded autonomy and traditions and national sensitivities, is how have universities got to this principled acceptance of convergence, and persuaded governments to back them?
You could say that Bologna matches an idea and action with a situation, and does so much more effectively than other institutions that favour international collaboration – the EU, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Bologna started with a powerful idea from the French minister of education, Claude Allegre, in 1998. He argued that European universities should, in collaboration, be able to play their part in the international scene as effectively as the top American universities. The precondition was that European universities should be recognisable by their structure, and by the quality of their research and scholarship.
It is significant that Allegre was not only a minister but also a world-class scientist and university professor. He knew first-hand that researchers have to compete on an international stage. He identified with the university as part of a community serving the public interest, and which shares thinking and work. He was able to argue with conviction for a strategy that saw the traditional university aims of emulation in the context of cooperation and collaboration on a European scale, in the arts as much as in the sciences.
The Bologna activity that followed makes universities the setters of the agenda. As such they are a more powerful driving force than ministers, who when they meet inter-governmentally are more diplomats than policy entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the Bologna steering groups have been flexible about EU institutions and the commission in particular.
Though the ebullient Allegre was determined to keep the commission at bay, later leadership has recognised the EU commission's value as an expert in cooperation through the Erasmus programme, for example, and as a provider of incentive funding.
The commission now gives important financial support to Bologna development on quality assurance and diploma supplements. It has invented a new programme, Erasmus Mundus, to spread the Erasmus programme model worldwide.
Having got over its initial huff at being excluded, it has recognised this opportunity to develop Knowledge Europe, a major strategic goal of the EU for its research and development policies and opportunities to develop the EU's European Research Area in parallel with the EHEA.
The fact is, though the tabloids and half the quality press don't believe it, most European integration processes in public policy, both EU and intergovernmental, are collaborative. As political scientists long realised, the view that policy implementation is a “top down” process does not reflect the reality. What happens is much more akin to networking.
Common concerns about international and national competition, or the threat on the horizon of a possible World Trade Organisation ruling on higher education as a service subject to the General Agreement on Trade and Services – not to mention contentious elements of national policy – look less threatening viewed in a European perspective. At this stage of the process in higher education, European unity looks as if it could be turning a threat into an opportunity.
There's a well-researched argument which concludes that the process of European integration has rescued nation states from decline. Closer European integration could well do the same for universities. – Guardian Newspapers Ltd