Alex Usher: Diseño de políticas para la educación superior europea
Mayo 27, 2024

MAY 16, 2024 | ALEX USHER

European Universities Association

Alex Usher (AU): Thomas, the European Union is a supranational kind of organization. I know federalism is a sometimes a bad word in Europe, but from a North American perspective, it looks a little federal to us. Help me break it down for listeners. How does the European Union decide which powers and activities end up in Brussels and which remain in the national capitals?

Thomas Jorgensen (TJ): It’s in the treaties. There are very specific areas where the EU can gather member states to decide a strict common action. For instance, strict regulation can be on AI. We can see that on big tech sort of market type regulation. Then there are areas where it’s much softer. Where you can, from Brussels, suggest or facilitate or fund, but you can’t set any tough rules. Higher education is one of those areas. That’s important for a whole talk, that you can’t legislate. You could legislate on research if you wanted to, but there’s never been the political will to do that and if there’s no political will, there’s no federal government that can push this through. If the member states don’t want it, it’s not going to happen.

AU: You say you can’t make law, but you can spend. Spending with strings can look a lot like legislation sometimes because people don’t want to miss out on money. Is that fair? Is that a way that Brussels in a sense plays a political game with national members?

TJ: Sure. That is one of the ways, and particularly money that comes directly from Brussels, like research money, you’re going to have strings attached and “say, oh, you need to have a gender equality plan to have this money”, or “you need to have some open science requirements.” You can do, let’s say, science policy that way. You can decide what you want to give money for. So in that sense, yeah, you can do it like that. But again, you have the member states at the table. They can also say, “no, listen, this is not going to happen. We’re going to spend money on this area and in this way.” So, it’s far more restrictive than having an actual federal government that has decision powers on its own.

AU: How does Brussels make policy exactly? It’s a complicated system because on the one hand you’ve got the Council of the European Union and the European Council, which sound the same but they’re two different bodies, that are responsible to national parliaments. Then on the other hand, you have directly elected European Parliament with a lot of different political parties and groupings, plus independents, none of which has anything close to a majority. They select a European president and a commission, a cabinet really, made up of one representative from each member state. How do you get things done in a setup like this? This seems to require a lot more persuasive ability than legislative ability, if I could put it that way.

TJ: Yeah, that is correct. I wouldn’t say it’s a consensual system, but it’s a deliberative system. You can’t force anything through. Sometimes it is incredibly efficient, and you can do things amazingly quick, and together, and with great power, particularly in times of crisis. Sometimes it’s just painful, because let’s say you have a executive civil service that proposes things, but then it’s out of their hands. Then, it goes to the member states, and they decide what they want. Then, you have the parliament saying what they want. Both of these have to agree with the commission sort of as a middleman. So it’s really dependent on broad coalitions, goodwill, and political will to move forward. If that’s not there, then you either have to move in devious ways or things just don’t go ahead.

AU: Let’s get to specifics, particularly around areas like education and research. Technically, the portfolio has a really long name: Innovation, Research, Culture, Education, Youth. It’s a big grab bag there. When a new commission comes into office, does it have a specific manifesto with respect to this policy or is it that each new commissioner for innovation, culture, education, et cetera, have a lot of latitude to initiate their own policy? To what extent is this a collective governance mechanism by the commission? Or is it the commissioners have some pretty big latitude?

TJ: It’s a collective procedure. As everything else, you have the structures, but then you have the persons in it. This is the first time we have a commissioner, both for education and research, it used to be two different portfolios. There are two different directorate generals, as they’re called, or ministries for these areas. So if you have weak or less interested commissioner, then of course, it all depends on the larger priorities of the commission. And if you would think you had a strong person as a commissioner, there is absolutely room for a strong commissioner to really go up against the limits of the portfolio.

AU: What kind of person gets to be commissioner? Are these people who might have held similar roles at a national level?

TJ: The commission is put together by the president and, of course, with big pressure from the member states. If you’re Europe with a lot of small and a couple of big states, of course it’s not an even game, and there is a hierarchy to what is important in Brussels. So on the top is legislation. Portfolios that have legislation in them are very prestigious. So, this is where you put the top players. The research and education portfolio has traditionally been very focused on running programs, and that is seen as less prestigious. I wouldn’t go and say that some countries are less prestigious than others and small countries never have a chance. But if you are a big country that wants a heavy influence on EU policies then you go for something different. You really go for economy, you go for the internal market, you go for something that has legislation, something that has immediate power in it.

AU: Have there been any individual commissioners who have stood out? I think the position has only existed for about 20 or 25 years, but in that time has anyone stood out as being particularly effective in the field?

TJ: Yeah, it’s a funny question because I was thinking back on these and they’re rarely big personalities. They’re very different, of course. I think the present one, Mariya Gabriel, she has presided over the largest funding for both education and for research. In her period, there’s been a whole new dynamic to both research policy and higher education policy in Europe. So, while she may be not have stood out as somebody who is an exuberant commissioner, if you look at the results would see that a lot has happened on her watch. Also, it has to be said also due to the civil servants below her, we have some very clever people sitting there.

AU: Thomas, I want to go back in history now. I want to get a sense of how the union’s activities have changed over time. What were the European Union’s first steps into the field of education? Because education is usually pretty tightly held at the national level, right? It’s caught up in notions of nationhood and teachers unions and those kinds of things. So what were the first steps that Brussels took into the field of education, higher education in particular, and why did they do it?

TJ: To my knowledge, the first sort of big step is the Erasmus program. To say, let’s pull money for mobility so that students travel around Europe and almost become Europeans. That has become perhaps the most well-known European funding program that there is. It’s by far not the biggest, it’s a drop in the ocean if you compare it to the money spent on agriculture or regional development, things like these are where the big money is. But Erasmus is the one that everybody knows and loves. That has been the major policy tool because it’s so well, known, because it’s so well loved, because there’s money there also to drive the Bologna process, which is outside the European union, it’s a much bigger process. So that’s been the key. But what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is this ambition to have a European education area, and that has many goals and themes in it. We’ve seen this initiative to build very deep cooperation across borders for universities, what is called the European universities initiative. That has become a policy vehicle by itself. That is a new thing which is a really interesting thing that is worthwhile looking at.

AU: We’ll come back to that in a second. You mentioned Bologna though. I think outside Europe, there’s a lot of confusion about Bologna. I think there’s sort of an assumption that because it’s a pan European process, it must have been initiated from Brussels, but of course it wasn’t, right? It was one of these things that came from below, if you will. But it seems to me that the Bologna process did create momentum for Brussels in various ways, right? The creation of a European higher education area begat some other ideas about how to create, pan-continental mobility or institutional cooperation. What was the effect of Bologna on Brussels? Was Brussels just opportunistic in the way it took advantage of that process?

TJ: I think opportunistic is probably a strong word, but it was very supportive. I think at the beginning, there was a little bit of a fear of Brussels in the Bologna process, which, as you say is much, much bigger and intergovernmental. You didn’t want the European Union to take this over. There’s been financial support from Brussels. Maybe until now, Brussels has not wanted to and not been able to set the higher education agenda. That has been set directly by the ministers in the Bologna process. Many of the structures that we have in terms of how we work in Europe on quality assurance and things like this, that lies outside that EU sphere, and it’s often been almost protected against the European Union encroaching on these core structures. But I think that is changing now, there’s less dynamism in the Bologna process and more dynamism in Brussels.

AU: Interesting. The other big project or set of funds that Brussels has control over that has really affected higher education over the years, is research, right? There’s a lot of research funding that comes through Brussels. The programs get renamed every few years. You do them in these seven years now periods. The current one’s called Horizon Europe. How has that policy area evolved over the years? How does the European research agenda sit alongside national research agendas? You’ve got some countries with some pretty big domestic research efforts like France, Germany. What niche does Europe occupy in the research ecosystem in Europe?

TJ: If we go by the rules, then any money that’s spent through Brussels has to have a European added value. It needs to be money that couldn’t be spent that way by the member states themselves. There’s of course, a gray area when you can really say that. But it’s a unique program for the researchers in the sense that you can build these multinational consortia with a common set of rules in a way that’s just not possible otherwise. The bulk of research funding in Europe is still national. There’s a very big difference in being in a big rich country that spends a lot on research, and being in a small and less well-off country that also spends a small percentage of its GDP on research. There’s a difference. The research program has always tried to escape that difference and say we focus on excellence. The only way to do this sensibly is to focus on the best. We want the best research. So we’re not a capacity building programs because there are other programs that do that. There’s much more money dedicated to regional development and there’s a lot of capacity building that goes on in those programs. So, it’s been very much excellence based. That has also meant, at least until recently, very much sort of science first. This is not a policy machine. This is a research funding program where science is first and the policy angle second. There’s been attempts to change that, but I don’t think those really worked.

AU: Brussels has been creating these networks of institutions via research or multiple networks of research cooperation. More recently, though, it’s created something else. It’s the European University Initiative, the creation of university alliances. They’re partly about research. They’re not necessarily about specific research projects but joint research is part of the agenda, but so too is joint teaching and joint work on innovation or community engagement. What problem was this really meant to solve? I know, Emmanuel Macron came along, he made this speech, let’s have university alliances, and Brussels took up the theme pretty quickly, but I never understood really what, other than more things should be transnational, what problem were the alliances solving. Secondarily, are the tools these alliances have been given through the program, which I think is 5 million euros over 3 years. Are they commensurate? Do they help solve the problem? Or is this going to be sort of an eternal pilot project?

TJ: No. This is not going an eternal pilot project. There’s way too much prestige in it for this to be an eternal pilot. But it’s funny because five or six years ago when this began to accelerate, we had the same question, what problem is this solving? Universities are great at transnational cooperation anyway. I think the clever move of this, and this is sort of the devious way of doing higher education policy, is to say, we push that system we have to its boundary. This is not about just sending students away on a semester. This is about much, much deeper cooperation. This is what happens. This is about aligning your systems so you can share education resources. It is more education than research. It’s about making joint programs. It’s a deep way of collaborating. When you have that deep way, you sort of go up against the boundaries of what is possible in the European system. Doing that in a highly prestigious project and saying, “we all have these ambitions and we wanted to do this, but we can’t because the system is too fragmented, so we need European reform of this.” So you can see it’s a way of aligning a sort of more, integration-oriented agenda from Brussels to where you then have the institutions as your political ally. So you sort of step over the member states, and you have the university saying that we need reforms here.

AU: From a North American point of view, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a government that takes institutions seriously and not just sort of individuals, the mobility angle. You talked about places where the alliances have run up against national systems, national legislation, and so that’s led to something called a Proposal for European Degrees. I’ve seen some people say this is the biggest thing since the Erasmus program. I’ve seen other people say, yeah, this is just a fudge to get around the fact that within these alliances, some countries don’t allow you to give out these joint degrees that were envisaged. So what do you think? Is this a big step forward for the union and its powers to have European degrees? Or is this really something small and technical?

TJ: It’s politics. If you say it’s big, that’s how it is. It’s been made pretty big. We actually, within the Bologna process years ago, agreed that we would have an approach to basically to do policy assurance on joint degrees. All the states did that, but they didn’t live up to it. They didn’t implement it at home. Now you put sort of more steam under the kettle and say this is how these universities should work, they should have these joint degrees and you haven’t lived up to your own ambitions, that were not even set by the EU, to make these joint degrees so get your act together now. As I said, this aligned with then the institutions coming and saying, we would really like to do this and we don’t understand why you, our national states, don’t give us the framework conditions so we can do that. In that respect it’s not a sort of technical fudge, it’s a political game. And we go towards something, I’m not saying a European quality assurance agency, but something that looks like European accreditation. So it’s highly political, it’s very tense and it’s a very good example of saying you have ambitious policymakers in Brussels allying themselves with national institutions to sort of squeeze the member states to the point that the member states want to be squeezed, because some of them are willing to do this and happy to do this as well.

AU: In about three weeks’ time, there are elections for the European Parliament. What’s the likeliest outcome of these elections and what kind of effect do you think it will have on Brussels policymaking with respect to research and higher education? Are we likely to see a more expansive commission or one that becomes a little bit less ambitious?

TJ: I can’t see a less ambitious commission generally, because of the common crises. We have the war on our doorstep. Climate is just going to be worse and worse in terms of the natural disasters, et cetera. We have a demographic crisis. These are things that just need to be done through Europe. So, I don’t think we will have a commission that’s less ambitious. I don’t think we’ll have a commission that’s less ambitious on research and education as such, but the trade-offs might be less advantageous than they were before. You mentioned, we have these seven-year budgets and before COVID, the commission came and proposed we should use more money on defense research and on the digital area. Those proposals were butchered by the member states. Particularly the defense one was like, okay, you can get some pocket money for that, but we’re not going to spend a lot. I can’t see that will continuing. Areas like digital, health, defense, will be up there with much more urgency than they were before. Then this question of can you make a research case out of that or is money going to be taken from the research program? Same with Erasmus, the thing about being a very popular program is that everybody wants a piece of it. So it might be bigger, but it might also just go to more purposes. So, I’m not that rosy on, the money aspect.

AU: That’s the next five years, but let’s take a longer view. If we have this conversation again in say 20 years’ time in 2044, what do you think will be different? Will Brussels be playing a bigger or smaller role in the field of higher education as we draw towards mid-century?

TJ: I have foresight in my professional title, so I always work with more futures, and I sort of have two that I work with. One is everything succeeds. You have an EU that’s expanded. It covers the whole continent. It is strong. It is self-assured. It might even have developed these university alliances into sort of super federal institutions and be a strong, assertive player across the board. I don’t think we should say that’s not going to happen, but you might also have the endless waiting room where reforms and big ambitions are never really realized. We don’t get the enlargement of the union. The member states will not give up powers to have sort of big ambitious agendas beyond what we have now. So you sort of muddle along which Europe is very good at. None of this will, of course, happen, but some of both will happen. The way for a strong Europe that mobilizes and really uses the potential it has also on the policy sphere to strengthen research, to integrate education, to enhance the quality of its education offer in disruptive and new ways that will be globally leading. I would not be surprised if in 10 years, this has happened.

AU: Thomas, thanks so much for joining us today. It just remains for me to thank our producers, Tiffany MacLennan and Sam Pufek, and you, our listeners, for tuning in. If you have any questions or suggestions for future podcasts, please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected]. Join us next week when our guest will be Jisun Jung, professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong, and we’ll be discussing recent developments in Korean higher education and in particular how the country is dealing with the rapid decline in the youth population. Bye for now.


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