Looking back at the final conference of the pilot projects

Erasmus+ CZELO

On 29 April, a key conference was held on the topics of the European Joint Degree and the legal status of alliances.

During the day-long conference, 10 pilot projects that have been testing the criteria of the European Joint Degree and the possibilities of legal status of alliances for one year presented their results.

The results of the projects testing the European Degree criteria 

In the first part of the conference on 29 April, organised by the European Commission together with the SMARTT pilot project consortium in Brussels, representatives of the 6 pilot projects (ED-AFFICHE, EDLab, ETIKETA, FOCI, JEDI and SMARTT) presented the main findings and outcomes of the tested criteria of the European Degree. These were proposed by the European Commission in consultation with HEIs, Member States and other relevant stakeholders a year ago, and 6 pilot projects were selected to test them. Their aim was to find out what the added value of the Common European Diploma is, whether the criteria meet the expectations of students, employers, Member States and HEIs themselves, and to identify barriers to implementation. On the basis of the results of the pilot projects, the Commission published the so-called "Higher Education Package", which still needs to be discussed and approved by the EU Council. 

The morning discussion on this topic was opened by Sofia Eriksson-Waterschoot from the European Commission, who highlighted that the pilot projects have made great progress in such a short time, but they did not start from scratch, as they built on the outcomes of long-term initiatives such as the European Higher Education Area and the Bologna Process. She also pointed out that some projects had identified more than 50 obstacles to the implementation of the Joint European Degree, some of them large, others smaller, but there was a consensus that the main problems included European accreditation procedures (which differ in each Member State) and automatic recognition, which is still not universally implemented

Main obstacles to the implementation of the European Degree

The main barriers identified by the pilot projects included accreditation and quality assurance, with interdisciplinarity (limits on courses within a single discipline, etc.), online or hybrid learing (limits on online classes or ban of exams in digital format), legislative barriers, student admission and enrolment (HEIs that are free to choose their students vs. HEIs that have to admit all students), financial sustainability and tuition fees being the main challenges in some countries. A problematic aspect of the criteria tested is the system for tracking the trajectory of graduates, which would be technically complex, including in terms of distinguishing between graduates of joint programs and traditional programs. Another obstacle is resistance to change and fatigue with new administrative burdens. Some academics and students do not see the added value of the Joint European Degree for the labour market, hence the need for a publicity campaign

Added value of the European Degree

The panellists stressed that standard higher education qualifications are not as relevant as they used to be and other modules may become more popular in the future - a new instrument like the European Degree is an opportunity to increase interest in joint programmes. The added value of the European Degree is the compulsory international mobility, which is very important for students who want to benefit from a recognised international curriculum and intercultural dimension. As far as employers are concerned, there is a need for coherent communication towards them about the European Degree, and project representatives underlined that employers should be involved in curriculum development. A considerable added value of the European Degree is that it should be seen outside the EU as a prestigious qualification and a guarantee of quality international education. This should contribute to the attractiveness of European higher education on a global scale.  

Recommendations for implementation  

Among the recommendations from the pilot projects on the steps needed to implement the European Degree, representatives highlighted the advisability of using smaller modules, such as micro-certificates, as building blocks for scaling up larger joint programmes. This requires greater flexibility and recognition of non-formal and informal learning. The panellists also agreed that the Commission needs to clarify what the criteria mean, as they do not yet specify how each alliance or consortium will apply them. Another point was the need to allow for cross-institutional level accreditation and programme evaluation, provided that the consortium has permanent and long-term partners. The aim would therefore be to evaluate the whole network and to give one accreditation to stable partners such as alliances for all joint programmes.

In order to implement the European Degree, the pilot projects suggest that the European Commission should map the legislative obstacles in each Member State, as most countries face very similar problems. This step should help to change the legislation if necessary. However, representatives of the pilot projects disagreed on the role of the European degree label. Some see it as a real opportunity for the gradual development of a common degree, as a first step, as it has minimal impact on legislation and is easier to implement, while others see the label as having too limited value and want to introduce a European Degree straight away. According to them, the disadvantage of the label over the degree itself is, among other things, that for employers it is not clear what the European Diploma label is and what its value is.  

Key findings of projects focusing on the added value of legal status and available options

The afternoon part of the conference was dedicated to 4 pilot projects (EGAI, ESEU, Leg Uni-GR and STYX) exploring the added value and possibilities of a European legal status. It is evident that alliances are interested in legal status, as almost half of the alliances have legal status under national legislation, and there is therefore a consensus among the pilots that the creation of a European instrument would be appropriate. The advantages of the legal status of alliances are, for example, the possibility to jointly recruit staff, receive public and private funding or purchase common software or tools (e.g. Microsoft licences for the whole alliance). The main added value lies in the strategic dimension of the instrument, as it allows alliances to take important strategic decisions together more easily thanks to legally anchored committees and governance structures. 

Existing European instruments and future prospects 

The pilot projects tested two options currently offered by the EU legislation: the EGTC (European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation) and the EEIG (European Economic Interest Grouping). The EGTC proved to be a tool that can be used for the purposes of academic and scientific cooperation, although it does not fulfil all the aspects that alliances would appreciate. The EGTC can vary in size and number of members, but its creation and implementation is proving to be very complicated. Other projects have explored the possibilities offered by the EEIG. The pilot projects show that the EEIG presents advantages over the EGTC especially in terms of administrative burden as it is very simple to set up, but only EU HEIs can be members, which is a problem for the associated partners.   

One of the projects therefore proposes the creation of a so-called EGAI (European Grouping of Academic Interest) along the lines of the EEIG, which would better enable academic cooperation and not limit it to economic activities. Another proposal is to adapt the EGTC: to remove the explicit consent of all participating Member States for their HEIs to participate in the EGTC, to allow recognition of the EGTC as an HEI, to provide clear rules and procedures for staffing and recruitment, to allow cooperation with the private sector and to strengthen the European dimension. One of the pilot project proposals was also to create a completely new European legal instrument according to the needs of the alliances, but this solution seems to be very difficult to implement and would require the most legislative changes. 

More information about the conference, including presentations and a recording of the whole day, can be found on the CIVIS website

The final conference of the pilot projects was followed by the Belgian Presidency conference on European University Alliances. It took place on 30 April and focused on topics such as multilingualism, student and staff mobility, the concept of super-diversity, pedagogical innovation, the role of the European Joint Degree for the future of the EHEA and the global partnership of the alliances, with an emphasis on cooperation with the Global South. More information can be found on the conference website