A Special and “Predictable” Period of Developments in European Higher Education Is Coming to an End?

It could be stated that, ultimately, two factors, more precisely two powerful policy narratives, can explain both the special and “predictable” nature of the major developments in European higher education during the last 15 years. These two policy narratives are the knowledge society narrative and the European integration narrative. Changes related to these two factors can help understand why this special period is already or might eventually be coming to an end.

When looking at the recent history of higher education in Europe going back to the early 1990s, but more clearly since the turn of the millennium, it is customary to talk about evolutions at “the European, national, and institutional” level. This is a very frequently used phrase (it is probably mentioned as such, or alluded to, at least once in most, if not all, of the papers included in this volume). Its relatively innocuous sounding pitch and overuse may conceal the novelty and relevance of a “European level” in higher education. The formation of a “European level” is a remarkable development for Europe and contributes to making the period so special, bringing with it new and important features with regard to the relevance of higher education and its place in broad political, economic and social contexts.

There were many important developments in the evolution of higher education on the European continent during this period. They extend from new challenges and new problems, to new policies, policy frameworks and instruments, and to new practices as potential solutions. Not all these evolutions are “European”, that is continental or above the national—far from that. There is a lot that was and remains

national, subnational and also institutional, where the real work in higher education is done. Many of these developments reflect global trends in governance, finance and internationalisation, for example. In addition, not everything that is “European” is inescapably good or unproblematic. This era saw an enormous explosion in public speaking about higher education, often creating rhetoric flourishes rather than realities, at times like a fata morgana of continental policy-making, consisting of worthy commitments made and reiterated, but not really put in practice. And yet, what is significant is the reality that a “European level” in higher education has emerged. It is a remarkable reality, complex and in fact convoluted, but with real substance and impact.

Two main continental processes (which could also be called “projects”) contributed to making a “European level” in higher education possible the way we know and live it today: the Bologna Process, launched formally in 1999 and leading to the creation of the European Higher Education Area now comprising 47 countries, and the Lisbon Strategy of the European Union, adopted in 2000, which included the project of the European Research Area. The present volume provides a good synopsis of the discussions regarding what really the European level is, and what it has exactly contributed.

This was a special period in the history of Europe, because it was defined by the emergence of a European space for dialogue in and on higher education (primarily but not exclusively a policy dialogue), and also, to an important extent, of a common continental space for action in higher education. This emergence in itself is a new and original development compared to the past history of Europe, and currently also compared to other parts of the world.

While the creation of a European space for higher education was a special defining element of this period, these two processes also simultaneously contributed to the predictability of the past 15 years. The Bologna and Lisbon processes were imagined as “projects”. That is to say, developments over this relatively long period have been planned. Both the Bologna Process and the part of the Lisbon Strategy touching on higher education (continued with Europe 2020 Strategy of the EU after 2010) were based on continental-wide objectives that have been consciously adopted and explicitly stated. Generic timelines, when not clear calendars and schedules, have been adopted for the implementation of these objectives. Instruments and tools have been created to make possible the implementation of these objectives, including task forces and, sometimes, completely new institutions. Governance structures and mechanisms have been developed, and sometimes budget provisions have been made available as well. In short, European developments in higher education supported by the Bologna Process and the Lisbon/Europe 2020 Strategy of the EU have been, to a large extent, consciously planned and explicitly agreed upon. Their execution has been planned and projected over several years “in advance”; they have been “implemented”—almost like in a proper project, despite their large continental scope and in spite of notable intellectual, political and operational complications.

These remarkable characteristics explain, although still only partially, why such European developments have been, in a way, both predictable and special. They have been predictable because they have been planned, and the overall design of the plan has not changed throughout this period, or at least not until recently. They have been special in part because the plan was a continental one, supposed to involve countries that are very different in so many ways (history and traditions, political and economic systems). What is also special, beyond the scope and the motivations of the plan and planning, are the ideas, objectives and means of these planned developments, which were original and innovative in many cases. Moreover, beyond the mere design and intentions, there have been many genuine and original achievements of these projects, or “planned developments”, which also contributed to making this period a special one in the history of higher education. Many of the most important motivations and intentions, elements of the implementation machinery, and achievements are inventoried and reviewed in the present volume. Invoking Bologna and Lisbon, though, is not enough to understand why what has happened during this time was special and predictable, and even less why this period might be coming to an end. One needs to look beyond the two processes, or projects, to understand what made them possible, sustained and influenced decisively their morphology. Bologna and Lisbon are remarkable historical occurrences that warrant such a deeper inquiry, going beyond just studying of their existence, characteristics and impact.

One could advance that two very powerful policy narratives (to call them so for lack of better concepts) and their interaction made possible and sustained these two processes. The recent corrosion of the two policy narratives (more immediately evident for one of them) is in turn responsible for the increased likelihood that developments in higher education in Europe will not continue the way that have progressed in the last 15 years or so. It was these two policy narratives that made these developments special and predictable. Their apparent fading away, in turn, makes future developments unpredictable. It is probably a purely speculative question for now whether other powerful narratives or a revised version of these two would emerge any time soon and eventually start playing a similar, or in other way important, role in influencing “the European level”, or developments in higher education in Europe more generally.

In short, the two narratives are the knowledge society narrative and the European integration, or European construction narrative. The knowledge society is one of the dominant policy narratives of our times globally, perhaps the most powerful contemporary policy narrative. It has to do with the belief, often a conviction, that knowledge is already and will remain not only the main factor of production, influencing economic efficiency and competitiveness of a company, country or region, but also the main factor that underpins social progress generally (including “social cohesion”, to use one of the favourite concepts of the Lisbon Strategy). Knowledge is therefore understood as being key to a better future, which, moreover, is a future that could be imagined, in fact planned in advance, and then shaped consciously (even “technologically malleable”) in the form of a “knowledge society”. Both the Bologna Process and the Lisbon Strategy/Europe 2020 contain explicit language about the possibility and need to build a knowledge society in Europe/European Union. In fact, they are both what could be called knowledge society projects, that is attempts at systematically building a knowledge society to address large societal issues. Knowledge is a key to economic and social progress, and higher education has a key role in the production, transmission, dissemination and even use of knowledge. Simply put, a core conviction of the last few decades has been that higher education is a key to building a knowledge society.

While the analysis here is restricted to a rather brutal raccourci, it helps nevertheless to understand how the knowledge society narrative, and the “knowledge society projects” it inspired, supported the emergence of a large consensus in Europe about the value of higher education. This policy narrative helped to put higher education very high on the public/political agenda in Europe and to mobilise large political and public support. The conviction or belief that the competiveness of a country, and in fact the whole future of that country or society, depends to a large extent on knowledge generated the related conviction that more and better knowledge was needed. More knowledge, in practice, meant support for more higher education, in the form policies for increased enrolments, for example, or for more research and advanced training for research to produce the advanced knowledge needed to be “the most competitive”.

The other powerful policy narrative, the European integration, emerged after the fall of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. In short, it was about the belief in the usefulness, perhaps need, of “more Europe”, both larger and more integrated Europe, in order to be able to better address security, political and economic challenges, while pursuing specific European values, including cultural values. This narrative is also plainly visible in both the Bologna and the Lisbon/Europe 2020 strategy.

The interaction of the two narratives created unique conditions for new developments in higher education at the “European level”. The underlying assumptions they fed into created a kind of policy “magnetic force field” helping to organise, and also to stimulate, a variety of ideas, initiatives and actions in higher education. These assumptions have been explicitly formulated in a number of occasions and documents during these years. A short summary could be as follows: Europe as a whole, or rather a more integrated Europe, could compete better in the world, it could also assert its own particular values and model of society (and in this way pursue a “European dream”, different from the America dream, for example), by building a society based on knowledge. It was further understood, or believed at the intersection of the two policy narratives, that developing a European higher education area built with program (or plan), common structures, standards, quality assurance, internal mobility, etc., is a key to advancing the knowledge society in Europe and can help in this way to achieve better competitiveness, social cohesion and greater well-being for all European countries.

This argument is the path that explains what made possible remarkable European developments in higher education, and why they were both special and, in some way, predictable.

What we can see at present is that the force of these two narratives is diminishing. It is not a secret to anybody that the European integration process is stalled (which may help to explain why Bologna is stalled as well). There is no political vision for a common European future and the public support for European integration has largely vanished. This, in turn, results in a different attitude to the idea of continental efforts, let alone integration or alignments in any area including higher education, and makes the future more uncertain.

We are also witnessing at least some corroding of the knowledge society narrative. This results, in turn, in less political support for and commitment to higher education. We hear leaders of some European Union countries (mainly in the East) arguing that capitalism is about capital, financial capital not knowledge, and for this reason banks are more important to save and keep alive than universities, in particular in times of austerity. We hear political leaders arguing that national competitiveness is not to be based on knowledge (and highly educated workforce), but rather on “skilled manual labour”. These are only two examples, illustrating perhaps a new direction, although no systematic research is available to prove it as yet. In any case, we can already see in some countries of Europe diminishing political support for higher education, reflected in reduced budgets and a different attitude to enrolment (“we need fewer students, not more students”). Although other countries and the Commission of the EU appear to maintain a higher education policy discourse based on knowledge society principles and beliefs, differences of opinion are clearly starting to appear.

The simultaneous corrosion of the two narratives, significantly more marked in the case of the European integration narrative, results in lower levels of support and commitment, at least at political level, for the idea of European dynamics in higher education altogether. This can be seen whether by reluctance to continue older development lines, such as those already agreed upon under the umbrella of the Bologna Process, or to adopt new initiatives. This support has not disappeared altogether. Outside and within the political circles as well, there is still lot of support for the idea of continuing the “European level”. This is the case with many students, academics, university administrators and higher education experts. However, even among these groups, we might be also witnessing diminished support, along with an entrenchment into national lines and ways of thinking, away from the European ones. With this, a remarkable period of special and predictable developments might be coming to an end. It should be said that this is a likely, rather than certain, scenario. Those who see the value of a European approach, perhaps side by side with enhanced national decision-making and initiatives, could still play a major role in influencing future developments. It is very unlikely, though, that the same patterns of developments would continue, given the change in the underlying “magnetic force field” created by broad and powerful policy narratives.

What the last 15 years have proven, in any case, and might serve as an important lesson for the future, is that the existence of a “European level” made possible remarkable achievements. These achievements have also been relevant at national level and would not have been there without the broader “European level”.

If this analysis is reasonably accurate, it shows that we are indeed living through times of change in higher education in Europe, perhaps on the brink of an uncertain future, at least with regard to the “European level”. This may raise several important questions: Whose mandate it is to think about the future of higher education in Europe? Is it still reasonable to think about the European level, and what should that mean now? What could be concrete decisions and actions to be taken at this point? What is the role of research in this context?

The papers in this volume address, directly or indirectly, most if not all of the important aspects of these questions.

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