Published on February 13, 2023 Updated on May 6, 2024

Rectors back EC launch of European degree pilot projects

Original article written by Jan Petter Myklebust, for University World News, 08 Feb 2023

University rectors from Belgium, Finland, Norway, Poland, Spain and Sweden and other stakeholders are supporting the movement towards a joint European degree and European legal status for the European university alliances.

On 31 January, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel launched 10 Erasmus+ projects funded to test new forms of transnational cooperation between higher education institutions, as outlined in the European Strategy for Universities released in early 2022.

Six of these projects aim to test and facilitate the issuing of a unified common European degree label, which is a certificate for students who have graduated from joint programmes of higher education institutions, set according to European criteria.

The other four projects will enable alliances such as ‘European Universities’ to initiate new forms of cooperation, including a possible European legal status for these alliances.

Full details of the 10 projects are available here.

The following European Universities Initiative alliances are participating: 4EU+, Arqus, CHARM-EU, CIVIS, EC2U, ECIU, EELISA, ENHANCE, ENLIGHT, EPICUR, EU-CONEXUS, EUt+, EUTOPIA, Film-EU, NEUROTECH EU, SEA-EU, UNA Europa, UNITA, Unite! and YUFE.

“Higher education institutions from 21 European Universities alliances are participating in exploring the joint European degree label. Higher education institutions from three European Universities alliances (ECIU, EUt+, UNITA) will explore a possible European legal status for their alliance, on top of UniGR [Université de la Grande Région],” according to a European Commission press release.

“I am happy to see those 90 higher education institutions of various sizes from all across Europe, and more than 20 European University Alliances, collaborate with national and regional authorities and other relevant stakeholders to make the European Education Area a reality,” Gabriel said at the launch.

“The commission will work closely together with the selected projects to explore and examine, hand in hand with the higher education stakeholders and national authorities, ways to make transnational cooperation easier for the benefit of Europe’s students, higher education institutions, and their staff members.”

Hans de Wit, distinguished fellow of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, who has been involved as a practitioner and scholar in the evolution of a European higher education over the past 40 years, is positive about the pilots to test the European degree label and new forms of collaboration aimed at overcoming longstanding legal and national barriers.

“The combination of European Universities Initiative alliances together with other stakeholders provides a good basis to identify barriers and opportunities. The pilots will provide insight into the feasibility of such a label and at the same time stimulate the alliances to get into a next level of collaboration,” he told University World News.”

Towards a joint European degree

The European degree label is a step towards a joint European degree, spanning several EU member states, and is designed to encourage student mobility and cooperation.

The label will reflect the skills and learning outcomes acquired by students who have followed a joint programme in several institutions in several countries in several languages, benefiting from the mobility opportunities of the programmes.

“Future measures will not replace existing national solutions but will aim to provide additional responses, on a voluntary basis, to deepen transnational cooperation, in full respect of the principle of subsidiarity and institutional autonomy,” the commission’s press release reads.

Generally, there has been enthusiasm for the pilot projects from European academic leaders.

statement from KU Leuven, announcing that a consortium of six university alliances has secured the European Commission’s support for ED-AFFICHE, a joint proposal to pilot the European degree label funded by the Erasmus+ programme, described the development as an “unprecedented collaboration among European University Alliances [that] will enable UNA Europa, 4EU+, CHARM-EU, EC2U, EU-CONEXUS and Unite! to take bold steps towards realising the transformative potential of the European degree label”.

“We saw potential in this call to pilot the European degree label that goes beyond the immediate objectives of this policy initiative and the lifetime of the project,” said Professor Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven, which represents UNA Europa in the project consortium.

“With this powerhouse of a consortium, we hope to bring about tangible progress towards our common aim of making the development and implementation of joint degrees in Europe a less complex and resource-intensive undertaking. We aim to achieve meaningful impact for all types of universities across the European Higher Education Area.”

Tackling obstacles to transnational collaboration

University of Helsinki Rector Sari Lindblom told University World News that as a partner in the UNA Europa alliance, the university was pleased that the ED-AFFICHE project, which represents an unprecedented collaboration with five other European University Alliances, had been approved for Erasmus+ funding.

“In this ambitious project, we are looking to tackle existing obstacles that hamper transnational collaboration in Europe today head on. Legislative obstacles may well differ from country to country, but we are convinced that we can find common solutions.”

Professor Ludovic Thilly, chair of the Coimbra Group and coordinator general of the EC2U Alliance, told University World News the participation of EC2U in the ED-AFFICHE project is “key to transform the expertise we have built with the first three EC2U joint masters programmes into a systemic change at European level”.

“I am also glad to see that the Coimbra Group is associated partner to two selected pilot projects: ED-AFFICHE and ED-Lab. This will also increase the impact of these pioneering studies and continue to place the Coimbra Group at the forefront of innovation, as [is] its long-standing tradition,” Thilly said.

Professor Sambor Grucza, vice-rector for cooperation and human resources at the University of Warsaw, a member of the 4EU+ alliance that is participating in the degree label pilot project, said the project aims to “simplify” accreditation processes and joint degrees of higher education institutions – a result that De Wit agreed was “the most important result that should be expected from this project”.

Grucza said: “The involvement of the University of Warsaw as the project’s supporting partner contributes to the 4EU+ objective of consolidating a student-centred educational framework. It also gives us an opportunity to actively support the implementation of the joint European degree, one of the four key initiatives providing impetus to the European dimension of education and research.”

‘Natural testbed’ for future programmes

Anders Söderholm, president of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and member of the Unite! alliance, described the European University Alliances as a “natural testbed” for the next generation of joint programmes.

“The joint European degree label could be a game-changer, but only if accompanied by the will of relevant member states’ decision-makers to further harmonise their higher education systems and progressively remove the many obstacles that European universities face,” he said.

“This pilot will not only enable the European Universities Initiative to test the European degree label, but it will also strengthen collaboration sought by the European Council: collaboration between European Universities, member states and the European Commission in co-creating the European Education Area of the future.

Dr Joan Guàrdia Olmos, rector of the University of Barcelona, which is a member of CHARM-EU, said the consortium’s vision for the pilot “advances collaborative links with member states that have been established in the initiative’s first three years. Spain, which will hold the Council of the European Union presidency later this year, is a shining example of this collaboration.”

Meritxell Chaves, alliance manager of CHARM European University, told University World News: “I would emphasise the results as a great example of the close cooperation among the European Universities to contribute and accelerate some of the elements of the European Strategy for Universities.”

“This is a forward-looking way of thinking about university collaboration,” Professor Margareth Hagen, University of Bergen rector, said in January 2023 when the university joined CHARM-EU as the ninth member of the alliance.

“According to the platform of the alliance, the partner universities are collaborating to form a challenge-driven, accessible, research-based and mobile model for European collaboration,” she said.

Student participation

Matteo Vespa, president of the European Students’ Union, which is the umbrella organisation of 45 national unions of students from 40 countries representing almost 20 million students, said the pilot projects on the European degree label and the legal statute for the alliances will be “crucial to understand whether and how these two proposals have an added value in furthering the objectives of the European Education Area vis-à-vis current frameworks”.

“As indicated in our resolution on the matter, they should be evaluated on the basis of their capacity to promote the implementation of the Bologna commitments and the respect of the fundamental values of the European Higher Education Area.

“From our perspective, the social dimension of the European degree label has to be at the centre of the experimentations, as it tends to be overlooked when thinking about the obstacles to further integration of degrees, while for students, tuition fees, admission systems and student support are crucial elements in deciding whether to undertake a programme,” he told University World News.

“Regarding the legal statute, we underline that the involvement of democratically elected student and staff representatives in the governance of the alliances must be a condition for the setup of such legal entities, thus fulfilling one of the commitments of the council resolution on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation.”

Outcomes ‘based on real-life experience’

Maria Kelo, director of the Institutional Development Unit at the European University Association, said her association was glad to see many institutions with experience with joint programmes and close institutional cooperation taking part.

“This will ensure that the outcomes, as well as any recommendations for the future of these instruments, are based on real-life experience and strike the right balance between additional workload and real added value for the institutions.”

She said the association welcomed the pilots as a way to bring the challenges that institutions face with joint programmes back to the forefront of policy discussions.

“At the same time, we firmly believe that the proper implementation of the Bologna Process commitments and the comprehensive use of pre-existing instruments (such as the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes) is key. This will also ensure that instruments are in place for cooperation between institutions across the entire EHEA [European Higher Education Area],” Kelo said.