Bologna Global Policy Forum

Online, November 19, 2020

Looking at the European Higher Education Area and beyond

Sjur Bergan, Council of Europe

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen,

It could be tempting to look beyond the European Higher Education Area by asking how other regions could “copy Bologna”. But that would be the wrong question.  Emulation is not cooperation.

Instead, let us ask five questions that will hopefully give a good indication of how the EHEA can develop a sound global approach in the next decade.

What policies work in what circumstances?

Firstly, we need to identify what policies work in what circumstances.  No construct is well suited to all circumstances, and the EHEA is an unusual one.

It is an intergovernmental process. Ministers adopt the Communiqués that set the directions of the EHEA, but not in a vacuum. The EHEA is fairly successful in part because it has managed to bring together the different actors. It recognizes that you cannot develop sound higher education policies without institutions, students and staff. 

This is more than simply listening to their views. It is taking their views seriously. Institutions, students and staff are not alibis, not clients, not cost centers – they are partners.  The EHEA would not have worked had we not been able to count on their contributions.  Just take the guidelines and principles for the social dimension that were adopted earlier today. They were developed by a group chaired by a student and a country representative. The European standards and guidelines for quality assurance were developed by stakeholders and then adopted by Ministers.

The EHEA is also a finely tuned balance where priorities and policies are decided at European level but implemented nationally, which is often within each institution.

What it means that Ministers sign up to a given priority and policy has been hotly debated. The debate was resolved through an emphasis on peer learning, which also indicates that not following up is not a valid option.

The EHEA responded to issues that were urgent.  The initial focus on structural reforms responded to a need, could be developed in the relatively loose form of cooperation that characterizes the EHEA, and succeeded in putting higher education policy squarely on the political agenda.

What are our values?

Policies should build on shared values.  Higher education policy cannot be meaningful unless it furthers

Ø  academic freedom and integrity,

Ø  institutional autonomy,

Ø  student and staff participation,

Ø  and public responsibility of and for higher education. 

Let us be clear: these are not privileges granted to institutions, students, and staff.  They are essential for higher education and research to be innovative. You cannot have quality higher education and research unless you can question received truths.  You cannot have societies based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law unless you can question prevailing views. We need critical thinking, which is not just “tearing down” – that is the easy part. Critical thinking carries a commitment to devising viable alternatives.

One of the major threats to democracy as well as to quality higher education is that our fundamental values are no longer unquestioned. The Council of Europe, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy, the International Association of Universities, and other partners work together to further the democratic mission of higher education. It is telling that our latest conference and book are on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy, and the Future of Democracy.  We offer this as a contribution globally.

How can we educate, not just train?

We often hear education and training mentioned in the same breath.  But they are not one and the same.  As societies we need to be well educated, not just well trained. We do not live by bread alone. Training may provide us with what we can live from.  Education should provide us with what we live for.

The Council of Europe has defined four major purposes of higher education. They are equally important, and the good news is that you do not have to choose: they are complimentary rather than contradictory: competences that make you well prepared for the labor market also make you well suited to be an active citizen in democratic societies and contribute to your personal development.  Critical thinking, analytical ability, and communication skills are obvious examples.

The Council of Europe has developed a Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture, with 20 competences organized around four clusters: values, attitudes, skills and knowledge and critical understanding. The Reference Framework applies to all areas and levels of education, including higher education. We offer it, as well as our platform for Ethics, Transparency, and Integrity in Education, also when we look beyond the EHEA.

How do we give everyone fair opportunities?

There is hardly a word that occurs as frequently in higher education debate as “quality”.  Nobody is against it, and nobody admits to aiming for second best.  But like our fundamental values, we tend to take quality for granted. We tend to talk about quality as if we know exactly what it is.

The Council of Europe has made a fundamental point: you cannot make high quality exclusive. A good education system is not one that leaves students by the wayside. It is one that offers them good opportunities to fulfill their potential and their aspirations.  The structural reforms of the EHEA aim to make it easier for all students to access higher education, to find their way along suitable learning paths, and to help them graduate with qualifications of good quality that will receive fair recognition – with qualifications that fulfill all four major purposes of higher education.

The Council of Europe will continue to make social inclusion one of our education priorities.   Social justice requires us to do so, and as societies we cannot afford not to make good use of our full potential.

As we look beyond the EHEA, this principle is no less important. The Lisbon Recognition Convention, which the Council of Europe developed with UNESCO, sets standards for the fair recognition of qualifications. The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees is a practical instrument to make the right to fair recognition a reality for refugees, also when they for obvious reasons cannot fully document their qualifications.  Over 500 refugees have received it so far. Our host today, Italy, is playing an important role in this project, along with Norway, Greece and almost a dozen other countries.

How do we make it sustainable?

The COVID crisis has made sustainability even more essential. If our societies are not sustainable, the many other issues we discuss will be of little practical importance.  Our societies need to be sustainable environmentally but also socially, politically, culturally, and economically. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, and particularly SDG 4, as well as the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law should guide us – in Europe as well as globally.  We cannot achieve sustainable development unless higher education does its part.

But we also need to make our cooperation sustainable. Global cooperation cannot rely just on higher level meetings every two or three years. If the cooperation between the European Higher Education Area and other regions is to be sustainable, if we are to learn from each other and maybe even devise common strategies,  we have to find ways of working together continuously on topics ranging from structural reforms to the fundamental values of higher education and its role in ensuring sustainable development. Like the purposes of higher education, these topics are complementary, not contradictory.

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen. The Chilean sociologist Eugenio Tironi suggests that to answer the question “what kind of education do we need?”, we first need to answer another question: “What kind of society do we want?”

We need to work together, beyond the EHEA, to find the answers to both questions.  The future of higher education depends on it, and so does the future of our societies.