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European Official Speaks Frankly About Collaboration, Quality, and Cost - by Beth McMurtrie, The Chronicle of Higher Education

samedi 31 octobre 2009

This month the United States and the European Union held a higher-education-policy forum in Washington. Organized by the U.S. Department of Education and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education, the meeting was the first in a series, with a goal of creating more partnerships between universities in the United States and Europe.
After the two-day meeting, Odile Quintin, director general for education and culture at the European Commission, spoke to The Chronicle about the forum’s next steps.
Ms. Quintin noted that the United States and Europe have had longstanding ties through the Atlantis Program, a jointly financed project that provides grants to further international collaboration and student exchange among countries.

Yet both sides agreed, she said, that much more could be done, given member countries’ common interests in such issues as lifelong learning and university-industry partnerships.
Ms. Quintin also spoke frankly about the challenges facing European universities. While the European Commission does not directly oversee higher education in Europe, it sets policies that influence member nations and runs projects that support international research and academic exchange.

One of the commission’s goals, she said, is to encourage differentiation among institutions, in the hope that they will strengthen what they’re good at, rather than all pursue the same goals.

"We have generally good-quality universities. We are much less good on the top, on the excellence part," she said. "Our main problem is strong fragmentation. We have too many universities. And of course when you have too many universities wanting to do the same thing, it’s difficult to get excellence."

To that end, the European Commission is developing what Ms. Quintin describes as an alternative rankings system, one that takes a "multidimensional approach" to evaluating institutional strengths.

"We don’t think all universities can be intensive research universities, which is a tendency in Europe. All universities want to do that," she said.
The rankings will look at how well universities do in teaching and employability of graduates, and at their disciplinary strengths, among other things.

"We hope to give the message that it’s not only research that should be the basis of rankings," she said.

Ms. Quintin said she would also like to see European universities secure more private financing, including from increased tuition, and become less reliant on government support.
While some countries have been successful in creating more autonomous institutions—primarily in Northern Europe—"we still have countries where universities are strongly controlled and regulated by the state, which doesn’t necessarily help competitiveness."
Such ideas remain controversial in Europe, Ms. Quintin said. French universities, for example, were beset by strikes last year following efforts by President Nicolas Sarkozy to loosen the ties between higher education and the government.

"The idea of tuition fees is something that for some countries is simply unthinkable because they see free education as a minimum for democracy," she said. "At the same time I think budget pressure and demography—because there will be fewer and fewer students—will force universities and governments to think about alternatives."

She said the European Commission has analyzed the issue of equity and cost.
"There is no evidence that countries that have tuition fees are more unequal than others, as long as they have good grant and loan systems for those that are less well off," she said. "Compare the U.K. with France. The system is no more inequitable in the U.K., which has tuition fees."

A strong advocate for building ties between the education and business sectors, Ms. Quintin acknowledged that this is another touchy area for many Europeans.
Nearly two years ago the European Commission created the University-Business Forum as a way to fix what it saw as a skills gap between the training that universities provide and what employers actually need.

"We have in Europe problems with some disciplines and some universities that are totally in the blue vis-á-vis the demands of the labor market. They’re not thinking about the labor market," she said. "They’re just trying to train people so they get good intellectual capacity and knowledge in the narrow sense."

"That’s why we think this idea of skills and jobs is so important, because universities have to be much more sensitive to labor-market needs."

There are exceptions, she noted. Business and engineering programs have well-developed ties to industry. And many of the Nordic countries parallel the United States in the partnerships they’ve developed with corporations. It is not unusual to have company representatives on boards of universities there, for example.

The University-Business Forum, she hopes, will encourage European higher education to stay on top of work-force development issues.

Although ultimate authority over higher-education systems rests with the individual member countries that belong to the European Union, Ms. Quintin said the commission has a number of tools to encourage the development of new ideas and new programs. It can set goals for the union as a whole, provide a venue through which countries can share their best strategies, and offer grants and scholarships for programs that promote their goals.

One of the most successful programs run by the European Commission, Ms. Quintin said, is Erasmus, which supports faculty and student exchanges within Europe, and Erasmus Mundus, in which countries outside Europe can participate.

"I strongly believe in the exchange of students and staff," she said. "Mobility is important for individuals and institutions."

Erasmus, she said, has brought about real structural change in European higher education. It has put administrative and academic systems in place that allow universities to more easily set up partnerships with institutions in other countries.

During the E.U.-U.S. Education Policy Forum, the two groups agreed to work together to share what has worked, and to pursue studies in several areas.

The United States, for example, will work with partners in Europe to discuss the Bologna Process. That project has required dozens of universities across the continent to define what components should go into undergraduate and graduate degree programs in order for students to graduate with a set of widely agreed upon skills. Those issues are equally relevant to the United States, Ms. Quintin said.

The two groups will also develop a joint study to identify needs for labor-market skills, and a study on examples of cooperation between businesses and universities.