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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]


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

Opening minds in a changing education landscape

European University Association annual conference

Brussels, 3 April 2014

Dear Rector,

Dear President Nazaré

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank you for your kind invitation. It is always a pleasure for me to address the European University Association, and today the pleasure is all the greater because your theme of 'Changing Landscapes in Learning and Teaching' strikes a deep chord with me.

As you probably know, my mandate as Commissioner responsible for education, culture, youth and sports soon comes to a close. These five years have been among the most rewarding of my career. It is rare to have the opportunity to work in an area which touches so directly Europe’s citizens – as the Erasmus+ motto goes: opening minds, changing lives.

If you will allow me, I would like to look back at the changes which have taken place during my mandate. Reflect on what has been achieved in higher education – and where I hope Commission support has been most useful to you in supporting your universities to forge the education that we want for future generations. And, most importantly, to reflect together on what lies ahead for higher education.

[Higher education and the economic crisis]

The economic crisis has changed the higher education landscape significantly – more than any other education sector.

University budgets have been cut, as public funding has dropped in many European countries - and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the EUA for your funding observatory, which maps how public funding has evolved since the start of the crisis in 2008.

In all countries – even where funding has not been hit - we see an increasing focus on performance and effectiveness. We are all increasingly conscious that public money must be spent efficiently and wisely, and those who use public funds must be prepared to be accountable to society.

At the same time, the crisis means that there is a clearer appreciation that higher education is crucial for the direction of society. It is the foundation stone for the higher level skills that people and our economies need, and it is an important part both of our strategy to exit the crisis and to lay the basis for sustainable, long-term growth.

Governments take this view. Young people take this view. They are coming into higher education in increasing numbers – and the evidence supports this choice: higher education is still the best protection against unemployment. And I would say that, by and large, universities share this view.

The university rectors whom I meet are guided by the knowledge that their institutions – whether operating regionally or on a global scale - are crucial partners in preparing their students with the right skills and the creativity that will drive the economy more solidly back on its feet.

[The modernisation agenda for higher education]

The key role of higher education in overcoming the effects of the crisis is also a cornerstone of European policymaking. That is why, as part of the EU’s overarching Europe 2020 strategy for growth and prosperity, there is a Europe-wide commitment from governments, prompted by the Commission, that more people should take advantage from the transformative benefits of higher education: that by 2020, 40% of 30-to-34 year-olds should be educated at university level.

This benchmark is important in itself – because it puts higher education among the top political priorities, and focuses minds. And because they are agreed at European level, as part of the newly economic governance - the European semester – it gave Europe a greater say into policies which are of national competences. Moreover, without such a benchmark, it would have been harder to persuade those taking budgetary decisions of the need to invest more, and more effectively, in education through programmes such as Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and the structural funds.

But we know this is not just about having a larger number of people with higher education qualifications. As we said in our 2011 Strategy for the Modernisation of Higher Education, we need to combine higher numbers of graduates with higher quality, more relevant higher education.

Part of this is about better connecting and supporting institutions to play to their strengths, focusing on performance and leaving space for creativity and innovation.

[Transparency initiatives]

The recently launched self-assessment framework for entrepreneurial universities or the upcoming U-Multirank – to be published mid May - are considered as a valuable contribution in this perspective.

They enable institutions to map and compare their performance in different areas. They provide the evidence base which can support you in the negotiation of strategic plans and increased autonomy. And above all, they encourage governments away from one-size-fits-all approaches, putting universities and students in the driving seat.

I also believe such initiatives help to trigger the changes in higher education that occur deep down within institutions, such as changes in curricula, bringing in more problem-based and work-based learning, focusing on learning outcomes rather than teaching input, and developing skills that prepare students for the workplace, skills that – alongside the knowledge that graduates bring to society – employers seek and graduates need in a fast-paced and changing world.

This also means reflecting on how higher education is transmitted to students. How, for example, can we make use of new technologies in providing high quality courses for students – which is the topic of your discussions today and of your recent very useful research into MOOCs, for example.

[Opening Up Education]

At the end of last year, I presented a strategy paper on Opening Up Education, examining the transformative benefits of information and communication technologies for all levels of education, from pre-school to adult. Technology in the classroom to promote interactivity or to connect up with learning wherever and whenever it can, helps us to do our job better, if used well.

Digital technologies in higher education – and MOOCs in particular – have provoked important debates. About the implications for learning on the one hand: How to use them to enhance learning for the student? How to assess the quality of technology enabled learning? How to ensure digital learning is stitched into the fabric of university life, and not kept apart?

How to provide teachers with the pedagogical skills for online? Who develops the content – the professor in the university? Or is it brought in from another partner university, or another kind of provider?

And, on the other hand, about their implications for the structure of higher education – does the funding model need to be adapted, for example, to allow for students who study at a distance? Should we change our expectations of what student success means? Will learners work towards a single, integrated qualification, or will they assemble their own lifelong learning path? Will the model of the university remain unchanged or will we see new providers and new models emerging?

I have asked the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education, chaired by the former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, to examine issues such as these regarding the role of new technologies in higher education, teaching and learning. This topic builds upon the excellent work the Group did in examining how to promote quality in teaching and learning.

Their findings will be published this summer, and will, I hope, flag the opportunities for institutions – but also, what governments and the EU can do to remove structural barriers that may hold back European higher education innovation from using new technologies.

While most of the incentives can only be put in place at national level, the EU’s programmes and initiatives are there to link national initiatives, to learn from the successful initiatives and to help our students, teachers and higher education institutions to respond to the evolving needs of society.


This brings me to the new Erasmus+ programme. Under the Erasmus banner the EU has been working with you for more than two decades to support openness and partnership in higher education.

As you know, Erasmus+ was agreed at the end of last year with a substantial expansion both in scope and budget. It is one of the achievements I am most proud of.

In an extremely tight economic climate, and against the backdrop of real and deep budget cuts in EU activities and programmes, it is testament to the importance of education and training that Erasmus+ was one of the few programmes, together with Horizon 2020, to receive an increased budget by 40% at €14.7 billion. I would like to thank you all for your strong advocacy for the programme, backed up by the excellent projects that many of you are engaged in which made compelling arguments for its extension and expansion.

I am happy that the new programme is also moving with the times, reaching out to new target groups, reaching farther around the globe, fostering more staff exchanges and in-depth strategic co-operation in academia, and helping students who want to take a full programme abroad through the introduction of a new student loan guarantee for mobile Masters students.

Preliminary results of an ongoing study on the impact of Erasmus exchanges reveal that the risk of long-term unemployment after graduation is half or even less for Erasmus graduates than for their non-mobile peers.

And more: young people who have been mobile during their studies increase by 20% their chances of having a management position 10 years after graduation as compared to non-mobile students. Erasmus+ opens minds and changes lives for the better – and I look forward to many more Erasmus generations.

I am also very pleased that Horizon 2020, which includes the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, has received more funding. I would like to insist on the major mind-set change which the EIT, and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) are bringing into the European Innovation landscape. With the EIT, we are placing universities and talents at the heart of innovation. We are connecting European hubs of excellence to global. We are preparing the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. With a budget of nearly €3 billion, the EIT will create 5 new KICs. We recently launched a new call for the two next KICs in raw materials and healthy living. And I strongly encourage you to look now into the opportunities offered by the EIT and join the EIT revolution.

[Bologna Process]

Finally, I cannot talk about the modernisation of higher education without touching upon the Bologna Process, and look forward to the years ahead.

In 2010, we celebrated Bologna's 10th anniversary and the realisation of the European Higher Education Area. A remarkable feat, given the huge diversity in the 47 countries which co-operate under Bologna.

Of course, much remains to be done. We still have not fully integrated the three-cycle system across all disciplines in all countries, especially in the regulated professions.

And we are still striving to ensure that political commitments are translated into reforms and innovations on the ground – making sure that institutions have the means to carry out reforms - in learning outcomes, in using ECTS, in quality assurance and in improving recognition of qualifications, to name just a few Bologna commitments. We are now preparing the next Bologna Ministerial meeting and taking stock of progress to date.

It is clear that the Bologna Process also needs to evolve to make sure it stays relevant to institutions, and to take account of the changes happening in the higher education landscape and the different starting points of the countries involved. I am interested in your views on what should be the priorities for joint work in the years ahead.


Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends

As your conference theme underlines, higher education is changing! Some might say that the pace of change is too quick or that the effects are too profound.

I would argue that this is not a disruptive change, but an evolutionary one. Constantly improving, inquisitive and searching – this is the very essence of education. This is our strength. To borrow the motto of this learned university: Scientia vincere tenebras, conquering darkness with knowledge. And that is certainly something which will not change.

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