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Scenarios for European Higher Education and Research in 2015 – Implications for Recognition of Studies

by Bernd Baumgartl PhD


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Developing VET Scenarios in Central and Eastern Europe and Their Added Value for Policy-Making”, European Journal of Education, No. 1/98, Institute for European Educational Policy, Paris.

5 Scenarios of EU development in the next 10 years underlie this paper on the future of higher education and research in Europe in general, and in particular their consequences for recognition of studies abroad :

Four scenarios stem from the supra-position of two continua, on the one hand between European Integration and Nationalisation, on the other between the focus on a Europe of Economic Priority (only) vs. the enhancement of a Europe of Knowledge. Scenario five, featuring partly European and partly national competences, implies the abolishment of the principle of subsidiarity for the sake of the principle of excellence in all policy fields – and a “retreat of the state”.

SCENARIO GRID European Integration Nationalisation
Economic Priority 2 Self-Governance 5 Privatisation
Europe of Knowledge 4 Europeanisation 1 Re-Nationalisation
Europe of Excellence/Retreat of State 3 Mega-Centres

Each scenarios depicts first an imagined state of the Union, secondly its repercussions for higher education, and thirdly the resulting institutional choices for recognition (which at the time of writing is with NARICs [1] in the EU, and ENICs [2] in the Council of Europe/UNESCO-CEPES framework – in EU countries they are situated often in one and the same institution).

1 Scenario “Re-Nationalisation”

Scenario 1 has at its starting point the enormous impact which accession has meant for the EU. By 2015, the Union is in severe crisis. Since the accession of the first countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 2004, the uncompleted reform has meant serious financial implications for the Commission’s budget. The Constitution is still pending dead. For five years, the most recent 2 accession countries await ratification of their Accession Treaties, but since the Slovenian “No” to the Croatian entry in 2009 they are ever more unlikely to find majority in the national parliaments. “Enlargement fatigue”, although not substantiated in Eurobarometre’s research, is the key word of justification in the European Council and Parliament to further delay Macedonia’s accession negotiations. At the same time, the reduced funding to the old Member States of the EU-15 has provoked a ferocious opposition from the population. Conservative governments, during their presidencies in the first half of the 2010 decade, have slowed down the integration process, and several policy domains are being nationalised – and obviously no new competences have been assigned to the European level. The most visual consequence of widespread Euro-scepticism has been the abolishment of the Euro and the re-introduction of national and regional currencies in 2012.

European education and science have been amongst the victims of a blocked reform, and already in the Košice Treaty agreed during the Slovak presidency in 2010 education had been close to completely eliminated from the Commission’s agenda through referenda in 8 Member States. DGs EAC and RTD (education and research respectively) were merged as part of the “Grande Réforme” of the Commission in 2009, and their staff drastically reduced. The tasks still carried out limit the CEC to an information point, where information produced by the Member States is processed, harmonised and made available. CEC staff provides the structures for national reporting, function as a clearinghouse and run a data warehouse for education provision at national level. The special agencies set up during the 1990s had been closed, and the Commission since FP 8 – which delegated decision-making on priorities and selection of projects to the National Science Boards – commissions only research related to its own agenda and needs (which are very modest).

However, the internationalisation of education and research has continued meanwhile – albeit at a much slower pace than anticipated in the Bologna Process. It mainly took the form of export of programmes from prestigious and successful universities to other countries. Due to a demographic decay resulting in less applicant students (especially in the 12 New Member States), the surviving universities see an increasing number of foreign students, and in the absence of a common European framework, recognition of certificates awarded by universities under Member State legislation is a major issue. Especially the joint curricula agreed between some individual universities across national borders stimulate mobility, despite the ongoing difficulties to nostraficate periods of study and degrees.

NARICs are more active, and produce guidelines and country reports for foreign students. Exchange at the European level has remained at the same level as at the beginning of the millennium, and an upgraded ICT use via a communication platform takes place – it had been the last EU-funded activity in 2011. Non-virtual networking is organised by the NARICs of the respective EU presidency, and paid for by the Member States as the main (and only) communitarian educational activity of each presidency.

2 Scenario “Self-Governance”

The second scenario is based on an integrating EU, which however limits itself to its re-affirmed “core competences”, i.e. economic and monetary integration. The reinforcement of the principle of subsidiarity had exacerbated the cleavage between policy areas within EU responsibility, and those where the Commission is explicitly excluded. Following the recommendations of the Convention, the Treaty of Plovdiv in 2012 had in fact lead to the abolishment of national Ministries of Finance, Foreign Relations, Economic Affairs, Transport, Environment, and also National Banks – by creating European Ministries for the whole Union based on the results of the elections to the European Parliament. In contrast, other policy areas like Social Policies, Culture, Agriculture, Education and Sports are being dealt with exclusively at national level.

On the one hand, the complete abolishment of borders, tariffs and other barriers, and the worldwide success of the Euro as a lead currency, has meant a stimulus for transnational research and education in Europe ; but these developments take place in the Schengenland/Euroland only – and entirely outside of any EU-driven input or regulations : institutions and networks are the carriers of transnational activities which are self-governed and managed by the institutions’ stakeholders. A competition between national education systems and universities, and the concomitant marketisation of education has meant a boost for the whole sector, which now relies on solid funding from diversified sources. While some small universities were forced to close down in the middle of the 2000s, others have grown into flexible and well-managed entities, often run by CEOs recruited from business. Like in China, the population recognised the remarkable return on investment of education, and in 2010 the average European family spends 8-12% of their income on lifelong learning. The increased cash flow in the sector has attracted banks and insurances, and despite the absence of direct EU funding – or due to the availability of these funds for other initiatives – non-governmental education actors have flourished.

The EUA, since it became the guardian of the UNESCO Bologna Convention in 2010, has taken over many coordination functions in Higher Education previously assigned to the Commission. Its main leitmotiv is “Networking the Networks” or “System of Systems”. Similar agencies exist in all educational sub-sectors, and for different research disciplines. Scientific associations (like the ECER for education) are important, though constrained to rely on a very unequal financial support. Corporate sponsoring of education is limited to economically viable themes, and soft-policy subjects are under-resourced. In the spirit of the Bologna Convention, European Consortia of universities award joint degrees, and the EU only finances research and education on an ad-hoc basis via pre-defined projects and infrastructure. The resulting fragmentation of education means a separation of sub-domains, and few synergies exist between Higher Education, General Education or Vocational Education and Training. At the same time, a rich fauna of communities of interest and practice emerges and disappears flexibly, according to funding provided.

National NARICs ceased to exist at the beginning of 2009, due both to the increasing overlap between NARIC and ENIC competences, and the fact that the issue of recognition was assigned to the strengthening of the ENIC network within a reinforced Council of Europe. The EUA hosts yearly conferences on transnational recognition (often co-financed by the Council of Europe), and regional networking between autonomous universities, but this is organised by educational and scientific sectors. Recognition, although strong in some fields, and weaker in others, is following the universally accepted UNESCO rules.

3 Scenario “Mega-Centres”

This scenario foresees the implementation of the concept of “European Excellence” in all policy domains – substituting the principle of subsidiarity. Rather than functioning as a government, the European Union institutions and actors aim at supporting Europe’s institutions, companies and actors with international standing to become more competitive on the global market. Not unlike a programme to develop gifted children (and completely opposite to the idea of Equal Opportunities), Community action and budget is reserved for the big or the smart players. Instead of dispersing budget and impact via myriads of small grants and projects, a leaner Commission is fostering the success of those most likely to succeed. In the educational field, this leads to the creation of a comprehensive (i.e. EUR-48) European Education and Research Area.

In the spirit of the Eighth Framework Programme, and Socrates 4, education is now tuned by the parallel introduction of identical study programmes at universities in the Member States. The incentives provided by the EU programmes have created a number of huge and powerful Centres for Education and Research (European Knowledge Centres – EKC), which act as coordinators of European programmes and projects. They attract the best researchers and teachers from national universities that face huge budget constraints. Starting from FP 8, every 5 years each of the domain-specific Centres issues a research and education guideline, and invites for proposals from minor universities. The European budget allocated to each centre is then distributed according to the priorities agreed for each scientific domain. Inter-disciplinarity and policy relevance has been become a four-letter words. Major higher education players run European scientific disciplines (e.g. the European University Institute in Florence – European Political Sciences, the London School of Economics – European Economics, the MPI-BF or University Bremen – European Education Sciences, etc). There are less EU officials in DG Research, and the EKCs decide on programming and distribution themselves.

National NARICs have been abolished for the sake of the European DORICs (Domain-specific Recognition and Information Centres), which are usually located in the same country as the EKCs. They deal with recognition but have limited – and decreasing – influence and scope, due to the existence of multi-lateral agreements between EKCs and their affiliated universities as conditionality for EU funding.

4 Scenario “Europeanisation”

This scenario assumes the undertaking of serious measures to implement the “Europe of Knowledge”. The policy goals agreed in Feira, Lisbon and Gothenburg had been brought forward, and the Estonian presidency 2011 had selected “Structuring European Knowledge Development and Mutual Learning” as the main priority for the EU integration and enlargement. Instead of economic competitiveness, the shared objective of democratisation of the EU and good governance is the manifest priority. Hence, enhanced attention for social policy and life quality. Boosting of lifelong learning and knowledge development to underpin the policy objectives resulted in the need to draw on – and recruit – substantial expertise from the academic community into EU management and policy-making. A vivid exchange between policy and research and civil society is managed with powerful electronic fora, and means for participation by citizens.

As a consequence, the Commission also initiated the careful “Europeanisation” (i.e. attracting and absorbing ever more competencies at the EU level) of the Bologna Process, and embarked on an ambitious re-structuring of European Knowledge Development – through the re-grouping, re-shaping, re-focussing of programmes, agencies, institutions and networks. The convincing step towards “Unionisation” was the designation of powerful institutions funded by EU budget for its implementation : EURIC + EUKNOWS as twin institutions for European education and research, with their outlays and windows in all European countries.

EURIC (founded in 2012 – with its seat in Bucharest) stands for a comprehensive clearinghouse and coordinator of all educational matters in the European Education Area, instead of previous agencies and networks on recognition, mobility, system monitoring, and quality assurance. By 2009 the ex ENIC, ex CEDEFOP, ex NARIC, ex Eurydice, ex ETF, ex EURES, and ex ENQA, ex-EUA had become new departments of EURIC. It covers all educational sub-domains from pre-school to lifelong learning, and certifies primarily short-term studies, experiences from prior learning on-the-job, and distance education certificates into EU professional and academic grades. EUKNOWS (located at Dobris Castle near Prague) is assigned the task to enhance the Europe of Knowledge : a European Knowledge Development Support Centre to coordinate European Centres of Excellence and to support European Research Networks in European the Research Area. It maintains antennas in all European regions, the Knowledge Resource Centres, and guides European Learning Processes supported with the new European Framework Programme for Research and Knowledge Development. NARICs, like other educational actors and institutions proved superfluous in European Higher Education Area as a separate European network (and their tasks now sit with the RID – Recognition and Information Department on extra-European studies and diplomas – within EURIC).

5 Scenario “Privatisation”

The last scenario stems from the assumption of a general “retreat of the state”. Both on national and EU level, government has become less important. Like in the Italy of Berlusconi at the beginning of the decade, all states have continued their privatisation and de-regulation policies started in the 1990s, and powerful corporate and commercial interests have taken over the leading role in most policy fields. Governments have become increasingly a curative supplement to the market, and regulate mostly social aspects of life – those the “invisible hand” fails to address. Also the Commission spends most of its budget on “Providing the Framework for European Business”, policy areas like security, control, and policing on the one hand, and unemployment and poverty reduction. The sharp polarisation amongst European populations has lead to a reinforced – and closely monitored – Schengen 3 Agreement of 2008, which assigns Europol significant budgets and powers. Major budgetary decisions for the Commission budget and EU programmes are now regulated by the European Central Bank (ECB) as policy is subordinate to the overall targets of economic growth and prevention of inflation, and instead of EU Regulations and Directives, the European associations of firms and multi-national companies negotiate economic rules in the form of “binding voluntary agreements”.

In the education field, the failure of living up to the priorities of good governance, lifelong learning and the Europe of Knowledge has resulted in a close to complete privatised European knowledge management and research. Corporate influence in educational institutions has skyrocketed. The Europe of Knowledge, though an uncompleted policy intention, has become a realised commercial activity. In the climate of de-politisation of education, MNCs run the most prominent universities (e.g. the former Humboldt University now re-baptised Daimler-Chrysler Academy). The growing importance of corporate certificates like “Nokia software programmer level 4” has substituted academic titles on the labour market. The GATS framework is often used by USA-based universities to challenge European legislation – arguing against protective measures and claiming that education is just another commodity. Their subsidiaries have taken over 24% of the European Higher Education market, especially on the upper end of quality and income. Also in the EU, the re-privatisation of certificates and degrees, and the withdrawal and refusal of states to regulate increasingly economic considerations and competition had been legally sanctioned (e.g. the 2013 over-arching “freedom of competition principle” which had been ruled by the new European Court of Justice and Competition of higher relevance than the right of member states to regulate education).

Of course, accreditation and recognition are crucial in such a marketised environment, and the CARICs – Career Advancement Recognition and Information Centres, in most cases units of the European Branch Chambers of Commerce – translate specific skills and corporate or private certificates awarded in one corporation, branch or sector into accepted categories in other economic branches. The European network of CARICs has its seat at the European Chamber of Commerce and oversees production of career space documents, transferable e-portfolios, compilation of corporate academy guidebooks and provides individual educational consumer advice – against a fee.


[1] NARIC – National Academic Recognition Information Centres

[2] ENIC – European Network of National Information Centres on academic recognition and mobility

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