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On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European University Association, Andrée Sursock analyses two decades of transformation and renewal in Europe’s higher education landscape, and charts what lies ahead.

Since EUA’s creation in 2001, Europe’s universities have been transforming and renewing themselves. These transformations are a response to changes in the global, European and national environments and a result of intentional change initiated by the state, the university or both.

2001 – 2010

The first decade of EUA started auspiciously, if turbulently. Higher education reforms took centre stage in many European countries. The expansion of institutional autonomy was seen as a mechanism for optimising universities’ response to regional and national demands and increasing their international competitiveness.

The buzz words then were globalisation, knowledge-based economy, information and communication technology, internationalisation and entrepreneurship. The responses to those trends translated into state-driven reforms, albeit in many cases at the (more or less discrete) prodding of rectors. Although the focus and shape of reforms depended on the country, there were some common elements that were framed by the European Union’s “modernisation agenda” for universities. The top four reforms, according to EUA’s “Trends 2010” report, touched upon quality assurance, research policies, institutional autonomy and funding. Other, less frequent, changes included governance reforms and new academic career models.

These reforms took place in the broader context of major transformations in the higher education landscape. Some countries – mostly in Central and Eastern Europe – saw a significant increase in rates of participation, associated with a substantial growth in the number of (mainly private) institutions. Other countries – mostly, but not only, in Western Europe – saw mergers of universities or the creation of university consortia as efforts mounted to increase the universities’ national and international impact. These trends took a sense of urgency when the first international ranking burst onto the scene in 2003 and revealed that the standing of US universities surpassed that of the European ones.

The scale of the reforms in that first decade cannot be underestimated. In many countries, universities implemented more than one reform at a time, whilst also having to manage the massive changes engendered by the Bologna Process and respond to the growing external pressures linked to high unemployment rates and the need to reskill and upskill the labour force, and the aspirations to improve research capacity and its international impact.

These reforms, combined with new European processes, have reshaped the internal organisation of universities. For instance, doctoral cycle reforms led to the establishment of new structures (doctoral schools) and new processes (co-supervision). The momentum created by the European Higher Education and the European Research Areas resulted in the blossoming of partnerships with other higher education institutions and with the private sector. The changing nature of European and national research funding schemes, combined with the greater emphasis on internationalisation, resulted in both the growth of administrative support units in universities (often at the central level) and the professionalisation of administrative staff. Greater autonomy improved the quality of university leadership and the strategic capacity to sharpen institutional profiles and increase  universities’ international attractiveness. The development of internal quality assurance processes was identified as the top internal change by 60% of the institutions responding to EUA’s “Trends 2010” survey, notably the universities with the strongest international aspirations.

2011 – 2020

The second decade of EUA started under a dark cloud. This decade is noted for the reverberating economic consequences of the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of illiberalism, both leading to limitations placed on institutional autonomy. Demographic trends had been declining sharply, leading to the dwindling of private higher education in some countries whilst the ageing of the population became a major weight on the public purse. The weakening of European policies and a sense that the Bologna Process was perhaps on the wane resulted in a diversity of national approaches, albeit with some common elements: budget tightening, increased workloads and casualisation of academic staff; greater stress on learning and teaching and on labour-skills development.

A variety of funding instruments became popular, foremost amongst them performance-based funding and “excellence initiatives”. In the best cases, the concentration of research funding through the excellence initiatives has had a broader impact on national higher education systems. It led those universities that were not in receipt of such funding to sharpen their profiles and strategies and to build on their strengths instead of spreading their resources thinly.

2021 – 2030

EUA’s third decade started under an even darker cloud than in 2011. As the economic situation was beginning to improve, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and constituted a full-scale stress test for everyone and every organisation around the world, including the universities, their students and their staff.

However, the ordeal brought about by the pandemic has had a silver lining. It has shown that universities have the capacity to adapt quickly and to change; and it has opened new vistas in the organisation of work, decision-making processes and learning delivery.

Covid-19 has not been the only disruptor. Others change drivers comprise the emergence of new actors (for example, third-party education providers and EdTech companies), and new trends affecting all three university missions. New trends in learning and teaching include the digital transformation and its consequences on graduate attributes and the organisation of learning delivery, as well as the growing importance of experiential learning, doctoral programmes, short cycle degrees, micro-credentials, and stackable badges. Notable trends in research include the Open Science movement, the push (and resistance) to limiting research to innovation, the rising importance of translational and interdisciplinary research and the move toward qualitative research indicators. The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the environmental crisis are stimulating universities to think of ways to integrate all three missions through challenge-based teaching, research and societal engagement. These developments are all the more important given the breach of trust between science and society.

The commitment to a digitalisation strategy, the design and delivery of an improved student learning experience and the need to demonstrate societal impact through both research and teaching require universities to radically rethink their decision-making processes, their links to stakeholders and their internal organisation, including how to promote interdisciplinarity and leverage the arts, the humanities and the social sciences. The EU’s European University Initiative has the potential for being the conduit of these changes across Europe, provided it is driven by an expansive vision of what universities are for.

Although Covid-19, combined with the Trump administration policies, slowed down globalisation, the needs for multilateralism and better world governance still remain. This is all the more important given the rise of China and India and their efforts to exert soft power around the world, including in Africa, Europe’s closest and most natural partner. China’s European strategy has consisted in identifying the vulnerable spots on the continent and providing developmental assistance to those with little financial means. The role of Europe in the world and the place of universities in deploying a diplomacy of influence remain important issues to tackle in that context.

Meanwhile, the social, economic and educational repercussions of Covid-19 will reverberate in the short and medium terms and will need to be addressed through different ways of producing and transmitting knowledge and organising the work in universities.

The time for bold changes has come. They must be driven jointly by universities, governments and civil society and require rethinking cooperation and competition and ensuring that higher education will be in a position to tackle the social chasms that Covid-19 amplified within countries and around the globe.


This article was written on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European University Association and the launch of “Universities without walls: A vision for 2030”.


Andrée Sursock
European University Association

Andrée Sursock is Senior Adviser at the European University Association where she is involved in a range of activities on the topics of governance, learning and teaching and quality assurance. She is author of the EUA essay “Higher Education and its Communities: A Transatlantic view on openness, democracy and engagement”, which presents highlights from the 2018 Transatlantic Dialogue.

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