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A European Higher Education System is Taking Shape

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Default profile picture Morag Young

The Erasmus scheme only receives 0.8% of the Community budget but is known by all students. Beyond this beacon initiative, another target has almost been reached: a European higher education system is making headway.

A European higher education system is making great strides. The number of initiatives – both public and private – is increasing and they are arousing interest and receiving resources on a continental scale. In the trail left by the Collège de Bruges, courses in European studies are being developed in universities and establishments in different Member States are forging closer ties and even creating common courses.

Thinking Europe in Bruges

In 1949 the founders of the Collège d’Europe in Bruges envisioned an entirely European school, created to form a new generation of young Europeans with a European outlook. ‘The students at the Collège think Europe’ underlines Robert Dresen, project manager of the school’s Development Office. ‘I think that it was the first European educational establishment. It is also the first purely European school to have asserted its presence in Eastern Europe (by opening a campus in Natolin, a suburb of Warsaw, ed.)’.

The Collège is supported financially by the EU which gives it a fixed grant, the Belgian Flemmish community, and national governments which give bursaries each year to students wanting to study in Bruges or Natolin. It has quickly carved out a good reputation for itself in the field of European studies as part of the social sciences (political science, economics and law). It offers a Masters in European Studies and also prepares students for the European Institution recruitment competitions (concours). Many former students work for European lobby groups in Brussels or elsewhere. In short, the Collège d’Europe is almost compulsory for people wanting to gravitate towards the Institutions deciding Europe’s future.

What distinguishes the courses offered by the Collège from those offered by many other universities? ‘The quality of the teaching staff’ Robert Dresen unhesitatingly replies. ‘They are all experts recruited from across Europe. Plus, the atmosphere among the students living in the small town of Bruges is quite simply unique.’ The Collège’s population reproduces European society on a miniature scale since the number of places available per country depends on the population size of the different Member States.

Erasmus Mundus: 250 Masters to be created in 5 years

The other way of creating a European higher education system is to include courses from different EU Member States for the purposes of assessment. This is the philosophy of the Erasmus scheme and the new Erasmus Mundus programme, implemented by Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Education. Today only 800 million euros are set aside for education and training, or 0.8% of the Community budget, a sum which Viviane Reding would like to see improve especially in order to increase resources for the Erasmus scheme, one of the most well-known in Europe. ‘We would like to reach the target of 3 million Erasmus students between now and 2010 (versus the 1 million students who have participated since 1987, ed.)’ explains Frédéric Vincent, spokesman of the European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture.

As for the Erasmus Mundus programme, from September 2004 it aims to further co-operation and integration between European universities by encouraging common Masters programmes to be created. These diplomas will receive the ‘Erasmus Mundus’ label from a specially formulated committee when three universities from three countries propose an integrated European course of study. Students of these Masters will therefore follow their studies in at least three EU states. The idea was inspired from private initiatives which have met with much success for more than 30 years, such as the European ESCP-EAP course taken in three different countries or the CEMS Masters offered by prestigious European business schools (including Bocconi University, the University of Cologne, UC Louvain and HEC Paris).

As well as furthering mobility in Europe, the new programme will improve the legibility of the European higher education system for third countries – or at least that’s what its promoters expect. The programme has been given a budget of 230 million euros for the period between 2004 and 2008. It should attract 5,000 students from third countries (1), according to the Commission’s calculations.

The Bologna process is forging ahead

The Bologna process led to the implementation of common grades in all Member States for the new undergraduate degree, Masters and PhD (a system called LMD - Licence, Master, Doctorat - or 3-5-8 depending on the country). It should allow European students to begin their studies in one country and finish them in another, or at least to improve recognition of academic qualifications between countries. ‘A European higher education system is taking shape, it’s undeniable’ underlines Frédéric Vincent, ‘and it is not limited to the EU. Third countries are also joining the process. As for the future Member States, we have already been working with them for two years within the Education Council’.

A European higher education system is one of the areas where the European Institutions have succeeded in arousing interest across the continent. Therefore, you might say that in the area of education at least, Europe does work.

(1) Within the framework of the Erasmus Mundus programme, these students will receive bursaries of 1,600 euros per month (plus 4,000 euros per year to cover university fees and transport).

Translated from L’Europe de l’éducation prend forme