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Education, the European Degree: Three Initiatives by the European Commission

Culture - May 3, 2024

Europe is focusing on young people, looking to the future by designing routes for them to make their path smooth and full of opportunities. The commitment of the European institutions, in this sense, concerns the involvement of girls and young women in the world of politics, in both social aspects and training. A few weeks ago, the European Commission presented a package of measures focused on the possibility of a European bachelor’s degree that would pave the way ‘for a new type of joint programme, based on a common set of criteria agreed upon at EU level’, as underlined in a note by the institutions. The Commission, therefore, plans to launch, as early as 2025, ‘European degree pathway projects’ under the Erasmus+ programme (which, for the period 2021-2027, can count on a budget of EUR 27 billion).

 

The three European degree initiatives

Contextualising the intervention, in September 2020 came the communication from the Commission on the realisation of the European Education Area establishing that, by 2025, actions would be taken to facilitate the realisation of joint degree programmes by higher education alliances. The following year, the communication was approved by the Council.

The package presented at the end of last March had therefore already been announced by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union 2023 discourse and is part of the Commission’s work programme for 2024.

The plan for a European diploma is based on six Erasmus+ pilot projects involving more than 140 higher education institutions across the EU.

A programme: this is how the executive defines the package of measures to equalise degrees. As the Commission explains, it is an expedient defined as advantageous for students, but not only: firstly, because it would facilitate mobility between one country and another; secondly, it would also simplify selection for employers, thus providing them with the option to recruit staff more easily. Furthermore, the executive explains, this way Europe’s competitiveness would also be strengthened, if one refers to labour market demand.

The package includes three initiatives that analyse and vigorously address all those legal and administrative barriers that do not allow the establishment of competitive joint degree programmes at bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral level. However, it should be pointed out that the initiatives referred to have been proposed in order to fully respect the autonomy of universities, as well as the competence of EU countries and regional administrations in the field of higher education.

That being said, the intention of the package is clear: to define a network that unhinderedly interconnects those who are in the process of obtaining a degree or who have already obtained one, and to prevent them from being constrained in their decisions by a limiting bureaucracy.

In this sense, the first initiative of the package concerns the realisation of a European diploma plan that defines a concrete pathway for cooperation between EU countries and the higher education sector, as the Commission makes clear. Considering the diversity of European higher education systems, it will opt for what is called a gradual approach with two possible entry points:

 

  • A European preparatory label is awarded to joint programmes that meet the proposed European criteria. Students will also receive a European Diploma Label certificate together with the joint diploma.
  • A European diploma: thus, a new type of qualification sanctioned by the national legislation, issued jointly by several universities or by a joint legal entity established by them, and recognised automatically.

 

As for the other two measures, these need refinement, but in general, one is intended to improve quality assurance processes and automatic recognition of higher education qualifications and the other is aimed at making academic careers more attractive and sustainable.

On the issue of quality and automatic recognition, the Commission, through its proposal for a recommendation, invites member states and higher education institutions to simplify and improve their quality assurance processes and practices. This refers specifically to the conditions necessary to ensure accountability and trust, and to improve the performance of universities themselves. The recommendation, the Commission further explains in an official note, would support innovative pedagogical offers and enable higher education institutions to create transnational programmes of certified quality that are automatically recognised throughout the EU.

The recommendation – proposed by the Council – on more attractive and sustainable careers in higher education aims to ensure that staff engaged in cross-border education activities – using innovative teaching methods – get the recognition and reward they deserve. In short, it is intended to ensure that all national higher education systems address the critical issues of uneven recognition inherent to the different roles that staff can assume. It is also intended to facilitate and encourage the promotion of transnational education activities.

 

The Commission’s support and Schinas’ words

The European Commission, however, will actively support the work of EU countries in the proper packaging of a European diploma. Among the actions envisaged is a European Diploma Policy Lab, to be established in 2025 and supported by the Erasmus+ programme, which aims to involve member states and the higher education community in the development of guidelines for a European diploma.

The programme was also welcomed by the Association of European Universities which expressed a positive opinion, but also made it clear that the success of the initiative “depends first and foremost on the implementation, across Europe, of the instruments and means related to the joint programmes that already exist”.

Indeed, during the press conference on 27 March, the press investigated the feasibility of the initiative several times, asking specific questions to Schinas, Vice-President of the European Commission for Promoting our European Way of Life, and Iliana Ivanova, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. A few concerns were raised, for example, about the possibility of the programme becoming elitist, not least because in order to obtain a degree, students would have to study at universities registered in at least two different member states, but no additional funding would be provided to support this activity.

Euronews television channel delved deeper into the issue by asking whether the way the intervention is structured would exclude students from less affluent socio-economic backgrounds. “Contrary to the elitist notion, the programme is all-inclusive and open to anyone, to any university, from any member state,” Ivanova replied.

It should, therefore, be an inclusive endeavour that is meant to unite and not highlight social and cultural discrepancies. There is also to be considered the access to the Erasmus+ fund, thanks to which, according to Schinas, female students will have access to this opportunity.

 

The next steps of the initiative

During the next few months, thus before the end of the year, the package will go through the Council of the European Union and will be discussed in synergy with the main stakeholders of the higher education sector. However, before the bureaucracy takes its course, the Commission, the initiator of the proposal, launches into a heartfelt invitation – addressing the Council, the member states, universities, students, economic and social partners – to reflect on how the European diploma can bring new connections and can facilitate movement and life choices.