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Promoting the European Way of Life

30 September 2020

Professors Moira von Wright and Ricardo Rivero Ortega, respectively Rectors of Åbo Akademi University and the University of Salamanca

The new European ’education package’ should be characterized by excellence, lifelong learning, inclusiveness and diversity. Deeper, transnational, and interdisciplinary education is more urgent than ever! This was the core message put forward by The European Commission Vice-President for Promoting the European Way of Life Margaritis Schinas at a video consultation with university rectors and student representatives on Monday 14th of September. The Coimbra Group rectors from Salamanca (Rivera Ortega) and Åbo Akademi University (von Wright) were among the fifteen rectors selected to convey the voice of the European Higher Education community.

The ’education package’ is one of several strategic ambitions of the European Commission. It comprises of two initiatives that cover all areas of education and training: first, a Communication on achieving the European Education Area by 2025 and second, an updated Digital Education Action Plan. The Commission foresees to present the package on 30th of September and so Vice-President Shinas was genuinely interested to hear how the universities see these efforts and how relevant we think they are: What are the opportunities and what do the challenges look like? Will this help the European Union to alleviate inequalities? Will it help us build resilience, awareness and political will? Will it enhance the digital competencies that are needed? Will it protect and promote the diverse landscape in Europe and will it promote our European way of life?

Vice-President Schinas started with an overall view of the reasons why the Commission wants to strengthen education and build a common European Education area.  Schinas declared his belief in this education package and emphasised his interest in the needs of society, and underlined that education is not only about instrumental schooling but also about learning to reflect and think, and he stressed the role of quality and inclusiveness at all levels and the need for ideas from the lessons learnt by COVID-19. After his introduction we were invited, one by one, to give a two-minute input on the concerns of higher education.

The common reply was positive, yet cautious. Doubts were articulated concerning funding, university autonomy and academic freedom, barriers such as lack of recognition of joint degrees, and the risk for identity loss in small and regional universities. The need to develop digital solutions and at the same time offer the students meaningful on-campus experiences was stressed several times.

The key takeaways from the Coimbra Group open session on European Universities Alliances, and the position paper on the new Digital Education Action Plan gave a good base for suggestions to Schinas. Here we have stated the importance of considering the digital developments together with higher education and involvement from citizens and newcomers, and we have pointed out the necessity of long-term funding and various funding models, and asked for clear definitions of what a European degree can offer the students, and argued that it must not be an end in itself but rather enhance learning outcomes and global citizenship.

The Commission has made a significant effort to implement strategic initiatives addressing the current pandemic situation, where universities are asked to face challenges and exploit new opportunities that arise. The initiatives planned by the European Commission are initial steps towards the making of a new and truly European university model. Although an individual university cannot transform a society on its own, this goal becomes more attainable by working together. As such, we advocate for a model of shared governance and shared resources which, for example, would have made the challenges faced by the teaching community with regard to the Coronavirus pandemic more manageable.

We must continue to work towards creating higher education that offers the guarantees of a European educational system. One that combines, in a balanced way, both face-to-face learning experiences, as well as blended and online classes.

Hence, universities in their search for excellence should reach beyond traditional conventions and adopt changes that allow 21st-century teaching to happen within the context of its mission. Combining hybrid teaching strategies is not new, but the challenge lies in how to obtain benefits from available resources, both human and technologies. By doing so, new learning and research opportunities can be created that can transform not only the academic community but society as a whole.

The digital transformation of a university must form part of an institution’s strategic planning that outlines and defines the key processes required for establishing new educational and operational models that guide its strategic direction and value proposition. A university must have a clear and comprehensive plan with viable initiatives focused on people and empowered by technology.

The university community, comprising different stakeholders, is on one hand a major resource but on the other a recipient of the benefits of the digital transformation of a university, as the use of technology is the medium for introducing improvements and needed change. Digital transformation can open the door to a university that embraces the digital society in which we live, creating a place which is more transparent, and one which promotes equality, inclusion, participation and social implication.

Schinas thanked us for the richness of our prepared talks, saying that what he heard was good and compatible with his aims. Obviously, during such short speeches there is not much time to develop critical reflections, linger on ambiguities, or raise new questions. Nonetheless, many important things were said, and all the participants enjoyed listening to each other during the short but valuable high-level dialogue.