Collaboration to become focal point in European higher learning
As the Dutch cabinet moves to limit the presence of international students coming to public universities in the Netherlands, the European Commission (EC) has hinted at plans to increase the exchange of learners as well as lecturers across EU borders. Notably, the EC wants internationalised higher education to prioritise inclusion, sustainability and digital transitions, and plans to investigate the role of flexible and virtual learning in sustainable travel. As part of the proposal, the EC is soliciting scientists and research institutions for help in elaborating the plan. The EC is especially interested in research on the current state of student mobility across the EU. To follow developments, the EC is looking to create a “scoreboard” for student mobility. However, as Von der Leyen cautions, a programme’s success will be dependent on the willingness of the individual EU-member states.
In addition to standardising education, internationalising EU institutions serves a diplomatic purpose, as the EC states that spending time abroad can improve attitudes towards the EU. If students or lecturers come to the EU and have a good experience – or EU students and professors travel abroad and represent themselves well – this can generate a more positive image of Europe, meaning the internationalisation of higher education is of implicit diplomatic value. Further, the EC states, “Students and researchers from outside Europe can contribute to the growth and competitiveness of the EU economy with knowledge and skills developed in Europe.”
International mobility for education and training has rapidly become a focal point in European and – by extension – global higher learning institutions and economies. According to EC president Ursula von der Leyen, it is imperative for EU-member states to work collaboratively toward this goal. The EC currently seeks to establish a European Education Area by 2025, removing borders and barriers to education, while ensuring optimal, standardised education throughout Europe. Previously, EU ministers agreed to increase the proportion of European students studying or receiving training abroad to 20% by 2020. Furthermore, a 2018 survey of over 8,000 Europeans aged 15 to 30 found that 90% consider it important to have experience abroad, and 97% find it useful to gain experience working and learning with those from other countries. Without an international perspective and experience with diversity, students may be ill-equipped to face the realities of professional life once they complete their studies and end up being less competitive as employees.
Interestingly, the same survey also found that, “93% think that it would be useful to create EU degrees delivered by networks of European universities, offering students the chance to study in different EU countries, with a flexible choice of courses or modules offered within the network.” This specific finding is very relevant, as the Erasmus+ programme – to which Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences is a partner – looks at creating a pan-EU joint degree label.
Challenges and opportunities
There are various challenges to deeper international cooperation in education facing the EC. These include a lack of financial resources, lack of information regarding studying abroad and a lack of interest within certain portions of society. However, the opportunities contained in boosting international mobility in education and the coordination of joint degrees could pay off well in the long term. For example, local education will have to be prioritised by EU governments in order to reach targets associated with joint degrees or university partnerships. This could even extend to primary education, as students will have to be prepared to enter higher education institutions, which will be optimised to achieve international standards and retain membership to collaborative education programmes.
Deeper collaboration – especially in the form of a European degree label – would be a major benefit to all workers, as it would hypothetically provide them with increased mobility regarding work. A graduate of an internationalised European institution would no longer have to hope their degree is recognised by an employer from a different EU country; it would hypothetically fall under a standardised category recognised across Europe. Moreover, a student transferring to another school in Europe might be less subject to ‘supplementary’ certifications and degrees, such as pre-master’s meant to make sure their scholarship is in-line with the standards of institutions. This would ease operations for universities, businesses and entrepreneurs, who would no longer have to waste time validating credentials from another country when they hire employees or accept students. Business would especially benefit from the international standardisation of education, which will provide them with higher-quality talent.
Wittenborg Universities of Applied Sciences understands the merits of studying as well as lecturing abroad, and fully embraces internationalisation as an operational and financial model. The school laments that its colleagues at public universities in the Netherlands are faced with a proposed ban on recruiting international students and moves to make their programmes less attractive, as WUAS continues to sustain responsible growth. In light of the EC’s proposal, hopefully more nuanced legislation on the internationalisation of education will be created.
by Olivia Nelson