Higher education in Europe in 2017 and open questions for 2018 by Manja Klemenčič, Editor

Manja Klemenčič, Harvard University

In 2018, we await another Ministerial Summit to lay the roadmap for the future of European higher education within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). In June, the Ministers responsible for higher education from 48 member countries, the European Commission, and several stakeholder organisations will gather in Paris for the tenth summit since the signature of the Bologna Declaration in 1999. Much of the attention at the Summit will undoubtedly be devoted to the implementation of the existing Bologna commitments. As a result of the Bologna Process, there has been an unprecedented convergence of higher education policies and practices across European countries. Especially remarkable is the growth and consolidation of quality assurance. All EHEA countries now have external quality assurance agencies, whereas at the inception of the Bologna Process only about a third did so. The European Quality Assurance Register, a legal body that directly emerged from the Bologna Process and lists agencies that comply with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Europe in the EHEA, is another deliverable of the Bologna Process.

Yet, the successive Bologna implementation reports, as well as the report of the Bologna Working Group on implementation[1], show that the EHEA is still far from fully meeting the objectives agreed upon by the Ministers in the Ministerial Communiques. The EHEA can be seen as an example of “multi-speed” intergovernmental cooperation, for different countries implement policies selectively and at different paces, depending on their national higher education context. Some of the core divergences in implementation concern the basic Bologna “tools”. Some short study programs in EHEA countries are not part of the Bologna degree structures. Discrepancies in the definition of learning outcomes that underlie academic qualifications are still common. This hampers cross-European recognition of qualifications. The National Qualification Frameworks, another of the basic Bologna “tools”, are also not fully implemented everywhere.

The main open question is what else will be highlighted among the policy objectives in the forthcoming Paris Communiqué. The Yerevan Communiqué in 2015 brought into the political limelight the need for strengthening the quality of teaching and learning. This policy area is likely to remain high on the political agenda, for the work has only just begun and ample possibilities exist to link it to other considered priority areas, such as the use of digital technologies in education, enhancing teacher support, and supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds.[2] As indicated by the draft report of the (take a deep breath) “Bologna Working Group on Policy Development for New EHEA Goals”, closer links between EHEA and the EU’s European Research Area are also a desideratum.[3]

Also among the top priorities, surely, is encouraging higher education institutions “to play an active role in society and to enhance the capacity of students and staff to be active and responsible citizens.”[4] This goal aligns with the most recent policy of the European Commission’s “modernization agenda for European higher education”. The European Commission is a full member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the executive arm of the EHEA. Over the years, the Commission successfully bridged and synchronized European Union (EU) policies and instruments (such as the European Credit Transfer and the Accumulation System – ECTS, Diploma Supplement, European Qualification Frameworks, mobility, etc.) and those adopted within the EHEA. Furthermore, the European Commission also played an indispensable role in the implementation of the EHEA objectives by offering support through EU funding schemes, especially the EU flagship programme Erasmus+.

The “Renewed EU Agenda for Higher Education” released in May 2017, focuses on four priority areas: (1) Promoting excellence in skills development and tackling future skills mismatches; (2) Building inclusive and connected higher education systems; (3) Ensuring that higher education institutions contribute to innovation; and (4) Supporting effective and efficient higher education systems.[5] Compared to earlier modernization agenda documents, this new policy offers a more balanced approach to strengthening higher education’s contribution to society, including not only economic development but also social inclusion and social progress. Drafted in the time following the global financial crisis and published in 2011, the earlier modernization agenda – “Supporting growth and jobs: An agenda for the modernisation of Europe’s higher education systems” – clearly prioritized higher education’s contribution to the economy while omitting to emphasize its civic role. Now the agenda expresses explicitly that higher education must also play its part in tackling Europe’s social and democratic challenges. In 2017, these challenges were formidable. Europe was still marked by the refugee crisis; a crisis which continues to polarize EU member states, has led to growing support for populist anti-immigration parties in several member states, and, arguably, played a role in the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union a year earlier. The agenda alludes to higher education’s role “…in restoring trust in democratic life, institutions and [in times of post-truth politics also trust in] the role of independent research”. Some concrete objectives include helping students develop social and civic competences and higher education institutions build closer links with local communities. Concrete proposals involve awarding students credit points for community and voluntary activities and supporting recognition of qualifications among refugees.

Apart from the rise of far-right parties in several EU member states, in 2017 we witnessed the further consolidation of illiberal democracies in Hungary and Poland. In both countries, governments sought to override the constitutional autonomy of the legislative systems, and – in Hungary – undermined the academic freedom of the Central European University (CEU), an American-accredited university. Amendments to Hungarian higher education legislation passed in April 2017 were popularly referred to as “lex CEU”. Higher education institutions and individuals from across the world joined the #IstandwithCEU campaign, which is ongoing. The European Commission issued a statement that “…the law is not compatible with the fundamental international market freedoms, notably the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment but also with the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as with the Union’s legal obligations under international trade law,”[6] and decided to take legal action against Hungary. Not much progress has been made since, except that CEU was granted an extension to the deadline for compliance with the aforementioned legislation. Consequently, in December, CEU launched #SeeUatCEU Student Recruitment Campaign, assuring students that they will be able to complete their degrees.[7] However, the future of CEU’s operations in Hungary is at present still unclear.

Outside the EU, the “2017 Free to Think” Report of the Scholars at Risk Network[8] also mentions threats to institutional autonomy and academic freedom of higher education institutions in Russia, notably the European University in St. Petersburg. In March 2017, the local court in St Petersburg revoked the educational license of this university, apparently in response to an official complaint against the gender studies program offered by the university filed by an ultra-conservative member of the parliament. Like CEU, the European University in St Petersburg was founded with the support of US-based foundations, including the Open Society Foundation.[9]

The Report also lists exceptional threats to academic freedom in Turkey. Following the failed coup of 2016, the report estimates that “7,023 academic and administrative personnel have been targeted for dismissal from their positions, and 294 students have been expelled in accordance with a series of decrees issued under a state of emergency that continues to be extended. At least 990 scholars, staff, and students have been detained or arrested, with warrants served for at least 318 more.”[10] Furthermore, over the past year, the government issued decrees withholding passports from scholars.[11]

All of the aforementioned countries in which there are such blatant violations of academic freedom and or institutional autonomy are full members of the EHEA. Given the consensual style of decision-making within the Bologna Follow-Up Group, and the essentially voluntary nature of this intergovernmental cooperation, it is questionable whether any sort of reprimand or sanctions – such as withdrawal from membership – for the violations is possible or likely to be issued by the Ministers during the Paris Summit. The default option is that the Ministers will reaffirm their commitments to the basic principles, and then leave it up to the governments to interpret the implementation.

Another unanswered question for 2018 concerns the United Kingdom. The exit negotiations next year will tackle several of key questions concerning higher education and research. While the UK’s world-class universities might not experience much change, the lower-ranking institutions are wearily awaiting the exit settlement. The domestic-rate tuition fees for EU nationals, as well as UK loans for full-time students from the EU, are likely to be scrapped, thus affecting demand from prospective EU students who constitute a considerable share UK’s student body. Reciprocally, the ability of UK students to study in EU countries may be hampered. UK’s participation in the Erasmus+ programme, too, is under question, as is its participation in the Horizon 2020 funding of research, of which the UK higher education institutions have been among the most successful beneficiaries. Finally, depending on how the question of the freedom of movement of workers is resolved, and if a special arrangement for higher education sector can be made, the ability of UK’s institutions to hire academic staff from EU countries might also be adversely affected.

The story of European higher education in 2017 is indeed full of challenges. On a more positive note, 2017 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus programme, which was launched by the European Commission in 1987 to support student exchanges. It is, rightly, considered one of EU’s most successful funding schemes for education, training, youth and sport.

All the mentioned developments offer ample opportunities for scholarly investigation. The European Journal of Higher Education (EJHE) welcomes submissions that offer comprehensive coverage of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of higher education, analyses of European and national higher education reforms and processes, and comparative studies of higher education within Europe or comparative studies of European and non-European higher education. We pride ourselves on a stellar Editorial Board, a pool of dedicated reviewers, and a world-leading academic publisher. Many thanks to the entire EJHE community for continued commitment to this journal.


[1] Working Group 2 ” Fostering implementation of agreed key commitments”, 26 October 2017:

[2] Working Group 3 “Policy Development for New EHEA Goals”, 25 October 2017:

[3] Ibid.

[4] Working Group 3 “Policy Development for New EHEA Goals” Draft General Recommendations, 23 October 2017:






[10], p. 12