Published 12:30 April 30, 2012
Updated 12:30 April 30, 2012
“The world moves, and ideas that were once good are not always good.” Fairly obvious, but in European policy-making these words of Dwight Eisenhower are often forgotten. Sometimes, repetition of old and once good ideas serves merely to compensate for the lack of original solutions to existing and arising challenges.
A typical example is European higher education policy. Though education remains one of the final bastions of the sovereignty of nation states in Europe, there are quite a few supranational policy tools in palce. Higher education policy at the European level was originally created to essentially bridge the existing gap between European nations, and act as a catalyst in creating something that could eventually be called European culture and European intellectual elite. With the financial and economic crisis catching European policy-makers off the guard, education was suddenly promulgated into economic lifeboat.
Overnight, education became a fundamental element of recovery narratives and all economic solutions that would otherwise be discarded were attributed with a word “smart”, immediately making them plausible. The only thing that no one really thought about was education itself.
Logically, if European education was as brilliant, we would have already been the world's leading knowledge-based economy and innovation powerhouse. That not being the case, substantial changes in approach to education seems as a ration next step. Provided that there is an idea of how to do it.
The lack of ideas and/or political will to implement them led to a repetition of formulas designed for an educational system with a different aim. Therefore, spending became the buzzword, following the old economic theories of effects of investment in education on GDP growth.
On 25 April, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Androulla Vassiliou, urged member states to increase funding for higher education, ahead of the two-yearly meeting of education ministers in the framework of the Bologna Process. Less than a week before that, on 20 April, members of the European Parliament did the same, calling on member states to ensure that higher education institutions are better funded, that people from all social backgrounds can study at them, and that more students can study abroad.
Communiqué released by the education ministers following their Ministerial Conference was even more anachronistic. Envisaged to gradually transform and harmonise various European systems, the Bologna Process was never equipped with emergency response instruments or flexible and adjustable mechanisms. As a consequence, ministers came with a set of conclusions which address pre-2008 priorities; access, mobility, recognition.
As in the case of the European Commission and Parliament, ministers pledged to enhance employability, lifelong learning and entrepreneurial skills of students. The wording was, however, obviously clumsily added to the rest of the text, as it clearly lacks content linkage with the rest of the document. Similarly, both the commission and parliament urged modernisation of educational systems and curricula, with the same nominal aim, but with no particular guidance on how. The key elements of policy proposals remained funding as the primary point, and mobility.
To start with, policy needs to be analysed against the nominal goal of ensuring employability. Employability means the capacity to find and sustain employment, and is based on premises that unemployment is a structural one, in other words consequence of discrepancies between skills demanded and offered at the labour market. Employability, however, does not mean job creation and as such cannot be used as a tool in fighting recession. In best case scenario, it can slightly reduce unemployment in certain sectors.
Mobility, was designed primarily to break boundaries between European nations and to provide youngsters at the moment of their maturing and formulation of worldviews with an opportunity to experience other cultures of the continent in a relaxed and positive way. The cultural awareness and language skills obtained through mobility again in the best case help employability, but have limited impact on job creation. Besides that, transfers between mediocre universities does not really contribute to academic excellence.
And that really is the major problem of European educational systems (with the exception of the British) – mediocrity. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings standardised the international university performance based on 13 indicators, divided between teaching, research, research influence, innovation and international outlook. Among the top 100 universities in the world, only 31 come from Europe, 12 of them from the UK and out of the top 15, only four are European, three of them UK and all the others are US based. In addition, among the 100 best universities of the world, only eight European countries are represented.
The reason for such a discrepancy cannot be a lack of public funding, which seems to be the policy magic bullet for European policy-makers. All of the top universities have fairly high tuition fees, constituting more of a moral imperative for students to excel than a source of revenues for universities. Besides, they all provide incentivising scholarships for the best and the brightest, ensuring that excellence is achieved for free for those who deserve it.
In addition, among European countries which host world's top 100 universities, the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Flemish side of Belgium were criticised by the European Students Union for either reducing national higher education budgets, increasing tuition fees or both, contrary to policy-makers' mantra. However, the top 100 universities from those countries either stagnated or improved in the list, unlike the best German and French ones, which, despite budgetary increases for education during the crisis, slid sometimes by 20 spots, proving it to be fairly difficult to argue correlation between public spending and quality of higher education.
As long as European universities are across the spectrum perceived as cheep, places for wide masses to have fun, and American and British ones as places of excellence, those two nations will continue dominating all the higher education charts and the European innovation, knowledge-based economy will stay another unfulfilled promise.