GLOBAL UNIVERSITY NETWORK FOR INNOVATIONIn this interview, Sjur Bergan of the Council of Europe, brings forward a discussion about the need of rethinking higher education in Europe through a broader view which goes beyond the labor market; he also brings forward both the advantages as well as the limitations of the current higher education system.

How could the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) contribute to fostering the public and social responsibility of higher education?
I would divide that question into two parts: first the part about public responsibility and then the part about social responsibility. Public responsibility for higher education is one of the foundations of the EHEA. The ministers said, in Berlin in 2001 and in Prague in 2003, that this is one of the foundations. But now, why have they said it twice? Why do they state the obvious? Or because it is feared that one of the characteristics of higher education in Europe is really in danger? I believe that the latter is the case. Therefore, we need to see how this public responsibility can be translated in a relatively complex age.
At the Council of Europe, we have done a project on this topic and identified four variants. We say that the public authorities have sole responsibility for everything having to do with the framework: legislation on grading systems, quality assurance and so on. This responsibility is held by the public authorities alone. However, I also believe that the public authorities have a larger, overriding responsibility to ensure equal access to opportunities in higher education. Then there are other areas in which the public authorities have an important, but not exclusive, responsibility: funding, production, etc.
So there are public universities, there are private universities as well, there is private funding in many countries-but always within a framework established by the public authorities.
Perhaps we could argue a bit about the details, but this, I think, is the key to public responsibility for higher education.
The social responsibility of institutions, I think, has more to do with attitudes, and within attitudes, perhaps systems. It also depends on how we assess publicly owned companies and other institutions that fund higher education and the criteria they apply. We must establish criteria that also value the activities of institutions, subsidies, etc., to increase access and so on. For example, in France today there is a debate over increasing access to the grandes écoles for students from disadvantaged sectors that traditionally have not entered these schools. Institutions also work with local communities. Here in Europe, for example, I think we have much to learn from the United States, where this is much more common. In the definition of objectives, we need to look beyond the purely economic questions that are currently at the centre of the debate in Europe. For me, higher education obviously performs the function of preparing students for the labour market, but it also helps to prepare them for citizenship-for living as citizens in a democratic society-and to develop them as people.
How can the collective consciousness, democratic processes and the citizenry be reinforced by higher education in Europe?

I believe that a hallmark of higher education in Europe is the role played by students. I do not know of anywhere else in the world where students play the same role in the governance of institutions and education systems. So first of all, students should be encouraged to participate fully in institutional life. Here in Europe, we have the European Students’ Union, which plays a very important role. We also have the national unions corresponding to each institution. The problem is that only a minority of students are active in student organisations. We need to encourage students to participate more. Institutional leaders and ministers need to state clearly that the mission of higher education is important, and this importance should also be taken into account when it comes to funding. Without funding, there can be no importance.
What structural changes are needed to foster the relationship between higher education institutions and societies?

The Bologna Process, which is underway now, has focused on structural changes. We have changed the education system into a three-cycle system throughout almost all of Europe. There is now greater emphasis on quality assurance. What is sometimes lacking is a discussion of why: Why are we doing this? I am convinced that these reforms are necessary, but I think there hasn’t been enough discussion of the relationship between structures, structural reforms and the goals of higher education-in other words, preparation for the labour market but also the democratic mission. One example would be when we talk about learning outcomes, which are a key part of the grading framework. This is another tool that can be used to strengthen students’ capacity for citizenship. I think it’s a rather important tool, or instrument, in this regard.
How can we change from a competitive model of higher education to a cooperative one?

First of all, I don’t think we have to choose between a competitive and a cooperative model. Both aspects are present, as they always have been. It is true that rankings are ultimately a competition for funding, the outcome of which usually depends on the public authorities. Yes, there is an element of competition. But at the same time, there are many interuniversity cooperation projects in which knowledge is shared. I think this whole debate over rankings is dangerous. However, if you measure only research results—and research results in certain disciplines, such as the natural sciences, are relatively easy to measure-this can indeed serve as a tool that enhances competition, at least as far as cooperation is concerned. I think it depends very much on how we define quality. We want to guarantee quality, but exactly what sort of quality? I believe that Europe needs institutions that excel in research in all areas, not just natural science and economics but also in the social sciences, the humanities and linguistics. But we also need institutions that excel in teaching and have a teaching-oriented environment. If we create a quality system and we create rankings, then this is also one aspect. We also need institutions that play an important role in the local community. We also need institutions that provide opportunities to people who otherwise might not reach higher education. The problem is that, under the current system, greater value is placed on one activity than on another. I think we need to reach a situation in which excellence is evaluated: excellence in research, excellence in teaching, excellence in community service and so on. I believe that everyone who teaches in higher education should have personal experience in research. Still, I think it is a legitimate alternative for a person to say, “I have this research base, but in my career I do not strive to be a world-class senior researcher. Instead, I want to teach, to stimulate my students’ curiosity, to transmit knowledge. I can’t do this without being up to speed on research, but my main mission is to work with my local community.” All this has to be valued. If we only value research careers, we’re not going to make it.
The problem is that we need to have several goals at once. I don’t mean to say that preparation for the job market isn’t important, or that research isn’t important—both are essential. But other things are important, as well. And we need a broader vision than what we have right now.

Sjur Bergan is Head of the Department of Higher Education and History Teaching at the Council of Europe (Directorate of School, Out-of-School and Higher Education Directorate General IV - Education, Culture and Cultural Heritage, Youth and Sport). He joined the Council of Europe in 1991 and has since been involved in most of the Council’s higher education activities, among other functions as secretary to the Steering Committee for Higher Education and Research (CDESR) and Council of Europe representative on the Bologna Follow Up Group and Board. Sjur Bergan was also a member of the Bologna working groups on qualifications frameworks and on the Bologna Process in the global context. He is responsible for the Council’s activities on recognition and mobility, including the establishment of a joint programme with UNESCO in this area and Co-Secretary of the ENIC Network. Before joining the Council of Europe, Sjur Bergan worked in the administration of the University of Oslo from 1983 until 1991. Sjur Bergan is the editor of Recognition Issues in the Bologna Process (2003), with Luc Weber of The Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research (2005) and, with Nuria Sanz, of The Heritage of European Universities (2002).
*This is not an exact transcript of the interview done with Sjur Bergan, but rather a version that complements such an interview.