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What would it actually mean if ‘Brussels’ had more of a say on education policy? EUA’s Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik weighs in on the resurging debate on whether the EU has the power it needs to foster deep transnational cooperation.

Lately, the idea of increasing the EU’s competence in education, so that it can go further in promoting cooperation, has reemerged. For example, this has been floated in discussions on how to remove remaining obstacles for the sort of deep transnational cooperation seen in the European Universities alliances. But what would it actually mean if the EU had more of a say in education policy?

To answer that question, we first need to look at the what the EU already has the power to do. The Lisbon Treaty tasks the Union with contributing to ‘the development of quality education’. That said, it places national governments firmly in the driver’s seat, with the EU instructed to encourage cooperation between them and if necessary, support and supplement their action. Moreover, it stresses the importance of fully respecting member states’ responsibility for ‘the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity’.

Aside from setting these limits, the same treaty also identifies several areas where the EU should act. These include developing a ‘European dimension in education’, encouraging mobility – including the recognition of diplomas and study periods, promoting cooperation between institutions – e.g. to share information and experience of common challenges, and encouraging the development of distance education. Although found elsewhere in the Lisbon Treaty, it’s important to also bear in mind the horizontal provisions on ‘the promotion of a high level of employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health’.

This makes education what is known as a supporting competence of the EU. The EU can foster mobility, quality enhancement and cooperation through funding programmes and policy dialogue with member states. However, it excludes any attempt to harmonise higher education systems or interfere with curricula. As such, when it comes to reforming higher education systems, the European Commission provides recommendations to member states on how to move forward with jointly agreed targets or goals, e.g. on mobility or investment.

In research, the EU shares competence with member states. This means that beyond establishing funding programmes such as Horizon Europe, it could also propose legislation in the form of a directive to pursue the goals linked to the creation of the European Research Area. Although this has been discussed from time to time, so far the Commission has never used this instrument. This goes to show that a higher level of EU competence doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be fully put to use.

Why is that? Because in any case, national governments have to agree. Even if the EU had a shared competence in higher education (as it has in research), should it wish to propose streamlined rules for European Universities alliances or the establishment of an EU accreditation agency for study programmes or institutions, member states in the Council of the EU would still need to agree. Just because the EU holds competence on something, it never means that the Commission or ‘Brussels’ decides on its own.

The involvement of the European Parliament and national governments depends on the scope of the EU competence and legal basis in the treaties. Therefore, the question of whether or not the EU should have a greater say in higher education policy is not necessarily where we should focus our attention. In itself, it would not necessarily be harmful, nor would it automatically help solve all the sector’s problems. What we really need is political will at all levels of the multilevel governance system to remove barriers to transnational cooperation for universities to further develop and make full use of Europe’s potential.

This in no way means that we can’t aspire to do more, more easily and together, within the EU. However, rather than waiting for a reform of the treaties, national governments, alongside universities, should firstly implement already agreed reforms to facilitate transnational cooperation (such as Bologna Process tools and reforms put forward in the context of the European Research Area). Then, if that is not enough, they should look for what else needs to be done to cut red tape.

A treaty reform may eventually come, given the political urgency created by a possible further enlargement towards the East. Or it may not, depending on future political majorities. Either way, we should not wait. Firstly, because treaty reform is not a pre-requisite to act on reforms. And secondly, because if and when it comes, it might not even include further EU competences for higher education. Over the decades, European countries have been able to integrate decisive industries such as coal and steel after the Second World War, create an internal market, establish a joint currency and distribute joint funds worth billions to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as many other incredible feats. Lately, the EU has acted in areas such as health and defence, where it has also limited competence, but there was the political will to act together.

If the urgency, political will and a decisive critical mass is there, Europe can create a fit-for-purpose and future-proof higher education system. One that allows universities to collaborate smoothly across borders and for students and staff to be mobile. And why not allow those who wish to award European degrees and have a European legal statute for their alliance to do so.

This does not mean harmonising everything. Europe’s diversity has always been its strength, which is also true of different approaches in higher education. However, we should enable those who wish to go forward and deepen cooperation. The current slow pace and fragmented implementation of reforms is simply inappropriate in the face of unprecedented challenges.  

As foreseen by Jean Monnet, Europe is indeed being forged in crises. Hopefully it won’t take another crisis for us to understand that we cannot spend another decade in discussions about competences or political declarations that leave key reforms unimplemented.

Further EU competences or not, what we need is more decisive coordinated action and political will from all member states to create more flexible and compatible systems across Europe. The European Universities Initiative has created some much-needed movement in this regard. Now, we have to take it further.




Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik
European University Association.
Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik is Deputy Director of Policy Coordination and Foresight at the European University Association.

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