The international higher education arena in Europe has waited for this moment for quite some time now – the International Communication from the European Commission (EC) entitled “European higher education in the world”. Addressed to both the member state governments and higher education institutions, the Communication clearly states what the Commission expects from both parties and provides tools and ammunition for European higher eduction institutions to put pressure on their own governments.
The document recognises that higher education is at the heart of the EU2020 strategy and plays a crucial role in Europe’s ambition to become a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. The whole Communication is cohesively linked with the more recent policy documents emphasising the need for societal development, innovation, strengthening the European position in the global arena, connecting with the rest of the world, capacity building, attracting talent etc. The Communication emphasises the same ultimate goals with new means of achieving these goals, and outlines specific areas of support from the Commission to ensure we are all heading in the right direction.
Increasing the competitiveness of institutions
The Commission warns the national states and universities in its Communication that even though the position of Europe as a popular study destination is good, competition is increasingly fierce and that now is not the time to relax. The race for talent is very real and very global and if Europe is going to fulfil the goals set up in EU2020, we need to be very active in that race. This cannot be the concern of a select few countries and world-renowned universities anymore, all higher education institutions have a role to play and a responsibility to take.
Referring to previous EU documents relevant for higher education such as the Modernising Europe’s Higher Education Systems, 2011, the Rethinking Education document, 2012 and the Enhancing and Focusing EU international Cooperation in Research and Innovation, 2012, there is an emphasis on the need to deliver education in various formats to meet the individual needs of the students and to enhance the competitiveness of the institutions. The influence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on modes of delivery of education is underlined and has its own chapter in the document connecting to internationalisation at home and the value of teaching local languages and maintaining the European language diversity in these times where education is increasingly delivered in English.
Emphasis on strategic partnerships
The commission introduces the terminology “Comprehensive Internationalisation” in a European context with an emphasis on the value and importance of strategic partnerships. Many of us are familiar with the concept from a US perspective and we recognise the similarities. The document states that one of its main purposes is to help member states and higher education institutions to develop strategic partnerships. These strategic partnerships are not limited to European partners, on the contrary, they should be international. Most universities already work with the concept of strategic partners, however, it is nice to see that there will be specific support for them through the Erasmus+ programme which has a specific section for this purpose only, which will be tied to modernisation efforts as well.
Value of mobility recognised
Mobility still has an important role and the importance of recognition is underlined. The Commission sees that the experiences gained and tools developed during the intra-European mobility period have proven their value and can now be used to support and sustain international/global cooperation and mobility, also outside of Europe. This will be further emphasised in the coming details of the Erasmus+ programme. A very clear message in this area is the pressure put on member states to sort out the visa issues that today are becoming larger and larger obstacles for the mobility of talent so much needed.
Support required from member states
With this Communication or, let’s call it ‘strategy’, the European Commission is setting a good example for the member countries – international strategies for higher education are important in order to work coherently and with focus on the tasks at hand. It has become very clear in the last few years that countries with these kinds of strategies are more successful in the international context. It is not enough to leave it to the universities to determine and execute the strategies; the member states need to provide support to their institutions of higher education, they need to provide resources and ensure sustainability. This latest Communication from the EC provides a point of departure for those member states (a large majority) which are still missing international strategies. It will be very interesting to see how many will take the opportunity and how quickly they will react to this Communication. We must all bear in mind, however, that we cannot wait until 2020 to make our contributions in reaching the Agenda 2020 goals, we must act now.