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Speech: "For socially responsible higher education: the EU perspective"

Commission Européenne - SPEECH/14/125   12/02/2014

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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Androulla VASSILIOU

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

"For socially responsible higher education: the EU perspective"

9th International Congress of Higher Education “University 2014”

Havana, 12 February 2014

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour for me to be here with you today for this 9th International Congress of Higher Education.

I would like to thank the Ministry of Higher Education and the universities of Cuba for hosting this event and for inviting me to address such an eminent group on behalf of the European Commission.

The theme of this congress offers the opportunity to discuss in depth the societal role of education. In this discussion, the work of pedagogists like John Dewey and Paulo Freire is very enlightening. Dewey often described education as a mechanism for social change whereas Paulo Freire has explained the role of education as a liberating force for the individual and the society, in what he described as "education for the oppressed".

This afternoon, I will share with you some reflections on what contributes to socially responsible higher education and what the European Union is doing in this respect.

Let us first define what we mean by "socially responsible higher education". Is social responsibility just an issue of attainment in higher education? Does it bear a responsibility for the graduate? Is it about extending the outreach of the university to the local or international society? Or is it about improving the employability of its graduates?

Historically universities were developed in two separate directions, the one following the French model mainly addressing the systemic impact of higher education through the civic service and the second being the Humboldt type of University offering a more round scientific education to its students. Both directions were aiming at transforming the society.

Today, the evolved university is a place where we offer knowledge and we transform the skills of our students in preparing them for the complexities of modern life. In this respect, tertiary education has become an area from which individuals, society and the economy can have significant gains. Furthermore, it is an area where we can undertake the reflections and develop the new concepts, technologies and policies that will create a fairer, more sustainable society. A repository for all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom that our societies have generated – one that makes it easily accessible to everyone.

We often hear that our schools and universities must address the challenge of skills mismatches and adapt to the needs of enterprises, that they should be incubators for business ideas. And of course, up to a point, all this is true: our institutions of learning should indeed ensure that their teaching keeps pace with and drives social and economic progress. To ensure students graduate with the skills that address labour market needs effectively - at a time when so many countries face massive youth unemployment, this is a matter of real importance.

But education is also one of our most powerful tools for shaping our society's future. If we want a society that is open, fair and dynamic, then surely that task begins in the classroom. And continues in the lecture hall, in the seminar room and in the research papers written by our researchers.

In Europe, we are working to reform education and training systems and make them more flexible, more coherent and more responsive to the needs of society and the labour market. We are doing this, not by looking inward, but by keeping European education and training systems tuned to world developments, by cooperating beyond the borders of the EU, by learning from the best.

The economic difficulties which have hit hard both Europe and other regions of the world over the last decade are global rather than regional or local in nature. And as such they call for global solutions.

Events like this Congress are a very appropriate opportunity to hear different world perspectives, and share good practices and expertise on educational issues with the ambition to better serve our societies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The EU perspective is of course that of its 28 member countries – there is no single EU education policy. The European Commission is particularly focused on working with the Member States to promote growth, guided by the Europe 2020 strategy. At the heart of this strategy is the mission for the EU to become a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy with high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion. Education plays a central role in this.

In Europe, our populations are ageing. And while we face skills shortages on the one hand and high unemployment on the other, to sustain economic growth, our industrialised economies need to become increasingly knowledge-based. We can no longer compete on the basis of labour costs, natural resources or traditional manufacturing, we need to rely more on our human capital and its ability to produce growth and new jobs through invocation and innovation. This is one of the social responsibilities of education and research that we need to explore further. The development of our people and especially our youth will not only yield direct economic benefits but will also offer a powerful tool against extreme phenomena and natural disasters that this side of the planet is so familiar with.

When it comes to employability, our forecasts tell us that, by 2020, about one third of all jobs in the EU will require high-level qualifications, but only a quarter of our total workforce is currently educated to tertiary level.

Socially responsible higher education is key to delivering the knowledge and competences required for our continued economic development. This is our approach in higher education in order to promote creation of new jobs, better governance, increased entrepreneurship and intergenerational solidarity, with strong social cohesion and a strong civil society.

Of course, this EU perspective on higher education is part of a larger picture. Europe and the world are facing an increased demand for education. Building on the progress made in expanding access to basic education, the number of students enrolled in higher education around the world has risen considerably. And is expected to keep growing, from 100 million in 2000 to 400 million in 2030.

This rise in higher education enrolment is putting a lot of strain on academic systems. Schools created to meet the needs of small elites are struggling to provide the infrastructure to meet the increased demand and to provide quality teaching.

In parallel to this rise in student numbers is the growing need to internationalise in our globalised world. The leading higher education systems are indeed increasingly open. Thus countries that are not firmly connected to the global knowledge economy find themselves increasingly at a disadvantage; and they are excluded from the international academic networks that produce cutting edge knowledge, innovation and research.

Our response cannot be to bolt the door and wish the wide world to go away. We must focus on more internationalisation and strengthening of our higher education systems. This includes looking at financing, training and retaining of teachers; harmonising educational structures; quality assurance; ensuring better recognition of qualifications; and building a strong research capacity.

The nature and intensity of shifts in higher education enrolments across different global regions will have profound implications for the way higher education is planned, delivered, funded and quality assured.

The number of tertiary students who travel abroad to study is growing. By 2020, we expect that there will be 7 million internationally mobile students compared to 4 million today.

Incidentally, learning mobility is something which the EU has championed for more than 25 years through the Erasmus programme. We want as many of our young people as possible to experience the challenge and the widening of horizons that come with a study period abroad.

This changing landscape means that universities will have to compete to attract more talent from around the world, and that further internationalisation of universities will require cooperation with new higher education hubs in all continents.

Last summer I presented an EU policy paper on "European Higher Education in the world" to address such issues and reflect on the importance of internationalisation strategies.

Such strategies should include innovative partnership models for emerging and developing countries as a means to strengthen both North-South and South-South collaboration, involving, for example, joint study programmes and learning and staff mobility.

Mobility has a huge potential in improving the quality of higher education in developing countries: by accelerating the design of internationalisation strategies and the use of transparency and recognition tools; by allowing institutions to learn from the best international partners; and by helping institutions develop better services to send and receive foreign students or researchers, and for recognising foreign diplomas.

And for the large majority of learners who are not internationally mobile, the global dimension should also be integrated into curricula and teaching/learning processes to ensure that they too acquire international skills: by learning from visiting academics; by spending time with mobile students. This is what we could call “internationalisation at home".

How education is delivered is also changing across the globe, and digital education offers vast new opportunities. It can provide wider access, especially in rural areas and for disadvantaged groups or for potential students who cannot afford to travel or take a break from employment.

It is in fact changing the social role of institutions as providers of knowledge and innovation and as drivers to development. This puts new pressures on higher education institutions in Europe, in particular to rethink their societal responsibilities in their local, national and regional context. And it includes the responsibility to build capacity in both emerging economies and developing countries of the world and to engage in worldwide partnerships.

In an initiative I presented last year on "Opening up Education”, the European Commission encourages its Member States and institutions to embrace more open forms of education. We must develop opportunities for international collaboration via online learning and expand the use of ICTs and Open Education Resources to widen access, modernise and internationalise curricula and pave the way for new forms of partnerships.

Dear friends,

Of course this global vision also includes the more specific interactions between the EU and Latin America. I believe there is a high level of complementarity between our regions which makes our collaboration mutually beneficial.

The European Union is, therefore, committed to strengthening academic cooperation between Europe and Latin America and reinforcing the links that exist among our higher education institutions.

Over the years, we have supported internationalisation efforts through EU programmes such as Erasmus Mundus, which funds student and academic staff mobility; the Alfa programme, supporting capacity-building projects; or the Marie Curie Actions, funding the mobility of researchers.

In the past decade, Erasmus Mundus has supported over 8,000 exchanges of students and staff from Latin America. And over 3,000 Latin American researchers have received funding to do research in Europe under the Marie Curie Actions.

The Alfa programme (“America Latina Formación Académica”) has also supported many projects to promote cooperation between universities in Latin America and cooperation between universities in Latin America and Europe.

Through Alfa, we have worked to improve the quality, relevance and accessibility of higher education; to contribute to the process of regional integration between universities within Latin America and to foster progress towards the creation of a unified higher education area in the region. The programme has also helped to increase the capacity of Latin American universities.

Now, since the beginning of this year, both Erasmus Mundus and Alfa have been integrated into Erasmus+ - our new programme in the EU for education and training, youth and sport up until 2020. It has been simplified compared to its predecessor programmes and we hope that the programme's actions will be more visible and easier to understand.

Erasmus+ will build on the success of Alfa and Erasmus Mundus, and will continue the EU's support to Latin America. We want in particular to boost mobility between our regions, and to support partnerships between higher education institutions which will help to strengthen their capacity.

Erasmus+ will provide funding for more mobility and international partnerships, as well as for capacity building and staff development in partner countries throughout the globe.

We will support short-term credit mobility for study periods of up to one academic year. In other words, the Erasmus programme, previously only available for European students and staff to move around within Europe, will now be opened worldwide. These are good news for the thousands of young people in your region who will find it much easier to study for a semester or a year in another country.

More higher education institutions will be able to take part in the programme, since participation will not be restricted to a small number of organisations participating in a call for tender. And non-European institutions will have a large flexibility when it comes to finding partners in Europe.

These changes will have a positive impact on institutions and your universities in particular. They will boost the number of agreements between EU and Latin American institutions, and help both sides to grow and internationalise.

Erasmus+ will also continue to offer Latin American students the chance to benefit from full degree mobility through the award of high-level scholarships for joint Master programmes.

At the same time, we will ensure complementarity with the Marie Curie actions, which will continue in the new Horizon 2020 programme under the name Marie Skłodowska-Curie. These actions will support research activities at all levels, from PhD candidates to senior researchers and will complement Erasmus+ by offering joint doctorates. We will retain the strong focus on international cooperation, and the programme will continue to serve as a tool for universities, helping them to cement their partnerships with their peers around the world.

Under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, we will fund joint, double and multiple doctorates. In addition, European Industrial Doctorates will encourage academic collaboration with the private sector to combine learning in innovation and entrepreneurial spirit with high-level academic research.

As you can see, our new programmes will offer many new and promising features for countries around the world, including in Latin America.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Modern, effective and socially responsible higher education systems are the foundation of an open, confident and sustainable society. And they help us drive a creative, innovative, entrepreneurial knowledge-based and socially inclusive economy.

We all want our higher education systems to provide our young people with the skills they need for good-quality employment in the future, and to be engines for growth and innovation. Higher education which delivers these core objectives, alongside other traditional roles as the guardian of learning and the source of ideas, is indeed socially responsible.

Through our shared efforts we can ensure that such systems are in place, and I look forward to continuing our work together in this endeavour.

Muchas gracias


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