the European Commission published a new communication on higher education – The Higher Education Modernisation Agenda. The agenda is a follow-up to the 2006 Modernisation Agenda, and also closely linked to ET2020 – The strategic framework for European co-operation in education and training from 2009.
This marks yet another major document in the expanding European agenda in the area of higher education – an area where European activities have throughout history been clearly legally constrained. However, recent years have witnessed a significant increase in activity, and education has now become one of the “key areas” in Europe 2020, the EU’s growth strategy for the coming decade.
At the launch of the Modernisation Agenda, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Androulla Vassiliou, argued that:
Higher education is a powerful driver of economic growth and opens doors to better living standards and opportunities for people. It is also the best insurance against unemployment. Even so, too many graduates struggle to find jobs or quality work. We need to reform higher education – and vocational education – so that we equip our young people with the skills they need to reach their potential in terms of development and employability.
The main areas for activity include:
- increase number of graduates
- focus on quality and relevance (knowledge, core competences)
- strengthen the “knowledge triangle” (education, research and business)
- governance and funding to support excellence
In addition to these activities, there is a multitude of various streams of activity and various instruments (Erasmus Masters Degree Mobility Scheme, U-Multirank, etc).
This puts focus on some of the arguments regarding higher education – the view on higher education is quite instrumental, with focus on economic growth and employability, and it also refers to an urgent and eminent need to reform higher education. There is a clear argument for more focus on the links to industry, the ability to produce excellence. However – it is less clear in these arguments why and according to what kind of evidence there is an assumption that higher education as it is does not function appropriately.
The communication itself does go a bit further into presenting some statistics that is to show that European higher education needs reform. However, to a great extent the document also repeats the already typical EU rhetoric – there is  a need for reform, higher education is under-performing, and there is an available ‘solution’ that with great certainty can fix the existing problems. And the mantra that gets repeated is one of great hopes and dire current state of affairs: “the potential of European higher education institutions to fulfil their role in society and contribute to Europe’s prosperity remains underexploited“.
This increased focus on education in Europe was already visible in the new budget proposed in July 2011 that market significant increase both in terms of education and research. While European activities most certainly have not replaced national interests, this renewed strong focus from Europe will have some implications on the future of higher education in Europe. What exactly they will be remains to be seen.