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European Commission


Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Why European universities need to think global

'European Higher Education in the World' conference /Vilnius

5 September 2013

It is an honour and a pleasure for me to open this conference together with Minister Pavalkis.

This is the first of several conferences organised under the Lithuanian Presidency, and I want to congratulate Dr Pavalkis and his team for setting such relevant priorities for education and training. Judging from the beginning of the Presidency, I am sure we'll do excellent work together in the next few months.

The topic of this conference is indeed a crucial one. On 11 July, when I launched my new Communication on 'European higher education in the World', I said that "European universities need to think global", and that "the Commission will support Member States so that they can develop their international higher education networks".

I am very happy for this opportunity to go further in the discussion on the internationalisation of higher education; a discussion that will continue at the Council of EU Ministers, since Conclusions are being prepared under the leadership of our Lithuanian colleagues.

I am sure that what will be said today and tomorrow will inspire us all, and will also contribute to the discussion that will continue between the Member States.

[A changing international landscape]

There probably has never been a time when higher education and its links with research and innovation have played a more crucial role: for the vibrancy of the economy, for the health of our societies and for the welfare of individuals.

We are living in a globalised and highly competitive world: to stay in the game, to create jobs, economic growth and prosperity, Europe needs highly skilled human capital - and it is higher education that holds the response to this need.

But the higher education landscape is itself changing in many respects.

I will soon present a communication on 'Opening up Education' that will look into the impact of new technologies on the way we learn and teach.

Today I would just like to emphasise that the expectations of the students too have changed. They are as eager as ever to learn, but they expect to choose what they learn, how they learn and when they learn, according to their individual needs and interests. And they are ready to do it in their country of origin, or by going abroad, or through courses offered online or via blended forms of learning that combine all of these possibilities.

Our students' eagerness to learn and their availability to go to new and great lengths to do so is a great asset that we cannot afford to neglect. It places a great responsibility on us all not to let them down.

The international landscape of higher education is also changing rapidly. Overall, the number of higher education students in the world is expected to increase by over 300%, from around 100 million in 2000 to an anticipated 400 million in 2030, with a particularly strong growth in the developing and emerging countries in Asia and Latin America. By the end of the decade, the number of internationally mobile students will grow from 4 million today to 7 million. The largest providers of internationally mobile students are China, India and South Korea.

Even if Europe continues to attract around 45% of all international students, international higher education is changing. As higher education institutions in other parts of the world increase their quality, in particular in emerging economies such as Latin-America, Middle East and Asia, these regions become attractive destinations for international students. For example, China already hosts 7% of the world's internationally mobile students.

This means that Europeans need to be prepared for this increasingly global, open and competitive labour market.

Internationalisation is our best response to globalisation. The latter creates a wealth of new opportunities - but only for those with the right skills; and with internationalisation we put those same opportunities within the reach of our students.

Because the skills and knowledge acquired in international education are the same skills that graduates need to succeed in the global economy.

To face these challenges, we need a whole shift in the institutional mind-set. It is no longer enough simply to encourage students to study abroad.

Yes, internationalisation still concentrates very much on mobility, but universities need to have comprehensive strategies that go beyond mobility and encompass many other types of academic cooperation such as joint degrees, support for capacity building, joint research projects and distance learning programmes. And they need to prepare for 'internationalisation at home', for those 80-90% of students who will not be mobile.

Talent and knowledge are the fuel of the 21st century economies. Therefore attracting high-skilled people can no longer be an objective of just a few countries or world-famous universities.

The EU needs to attract more talent from around the world and the internationalisation of European universities requires cooperation with the new higher education hubs that are emerging in Asia, in Latin America and around the world.

[How can the EU respond to these changes?]

The EU will support universities in their evolution. We have the means and the experience for that. Over the past two decades, EU programmes have changed the face of higher education in Europe: the Erasmus programme has made mobility part of the regular academic life for millions of students. It has been an important catalyst in the reform and internationalisation of higher education systems.

Erasmus students, with their results and their expectations, have been a powerful force in driving the Bologna Process forward. Now, because of its own success, the Bologna Process is already looking beyond the borders of Europe.

And other successful programmes such as Tempus, Erasmus Mundus and Marie Curie have followed in the wake of Erasmus, strengthening the EU's global outreach and supporting non-EU countries in developing their own capacities.

To date, more than 20% of the researchers, PhD candidates, post-doctorates and senior scientists recruited under Marie Curie are non-Europeans. These experts bring much welcomed skills and talent to European universities and enterprises. Their presence is an essential contribution to Europe scientific prowess, since nowadays internationally co-authored research papers and projects are the norm rather than the exception.

For the past two years we have been negotiating at the European level on the new 'Erasmus+' programme. It is now agreed and needs to be formally adopted by the European Parliament. This new programme aims to go even further in supporting European universities: we will provide a stronger and more supportive policy framework, and greater and better-targeted financial incentives.

Erasmus+ will have in particular a strong international component aimed to attract talent to Europe. Erasmus+ will open up the Erasmus programme to students outside the European Union for the first time.

It will also provide funding for more outgoing mobility, international partnerships and joint research projects, as well as for capacity-building and staff development in the less developed parts of the world.

The new programme will further strengthen Europe's reputation as a high-quality and socially-responsible higher education provider.

Marie Curie will also continue in Horizon 2020 under the name Marie Skłodowska Curie. The strong international dimension will be retained and the programme will continue to be a mechanism for European universities to cement their partnerships with their peers around the world.

Moreover, with the growing importance of university rankings and their impact on branding and therefore on student choice of study destination, we are about to launch U-Multirank. U-Multirank will differ from the traditional and research focused rankings such as Shanghai or Times.

It will be multidimensional, trying to give a fairer and more precise picture of global higher education institutions. In particular, it will try to take account of the diversity of missions of universities through dimensions such as internationalisation, quality of teaching, regional engagement or knowledge transfer. The first ranking is expected to be published in early 2014. Nearly 700 universities in the world have already signed up, including 10 universities in Lithuania.

Another area where we will step up our efforts is the international promotion of the EU as a study and research destination.

As the EU is competing with new regional higher education hubs to attract talent, it must reinforce its efforts to promote the high quality and the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of European higher education.

The role of the EU is to complement national information and marketing efforts, and promote the European dimension of higher education, including through innovative approaches such as a more intensive use of student and alumni associations as ambassadors of European higher education and programmes.


I would like to conclude, ladies and gentlemen, by stressing that there is not one approach to internationalisation – it means very different things to different higher education institutions; it all depends on the context.

But what is common to all institutions is the need to position themselves better to face the pressures of globalisation. And the right level to do so is precisely at the European level.

Internationalisation of higher education is a great opportunity that can bring significant benefits for Europe, for the Member States, for individual institutions and students.

The Communication I have presented is a starting point and an invitation to a collective dialogue. The actual work of making European Higher Education truly international is just about to begin and it is by working together that we will achieve great results.

Thank you for your attention.

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