European Strategy for Universities 2022: Friend or Foe?


The European Strategy for Universities is an initiative that aims to enhance transnational cooperation between universities and increase the involvement of businesses in the higher education sector, while simultaneously seeking to prepare higher education for the future.  On 18 January 2022, two new documents were published by the European Commission as part of the European Strategy for Universities: the Commission Communication on a European strategy for universities with information about the planned actions of the European Commission until 2024, and a proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation  with recommendations to the EU Member States.

The proposed Council Recommendation includes several new actions, including recommendations to EU Member States to: enable higher education institutions to develop and implement joint transnational education activities (within and beyond the EU); set-up a legal statute and provide sustainable financial support for the European Universities' Alliances and facilitate a joint European degree by 2024; support more mobility for students and staff (also online); promote and protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy; enable the full implementation of the European Approach for the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes; support high-quality virtual collaborative learning; and encourage the involvement of learners, academics and researchers in the governance of higher education institutional transnational cooperation structures.

ETUCE welcomes that the documents published by the European Commission highlight the importance of attractive career paths and working conditions for academics and researchers, the role of academics and researchers in governance, having an inclusive and diverse approach to learning and teaching, and recognizing that the higher education sector is underfunded. However, ETUCE regrets that many of the issues outlined in its position paper, written in response to the 2021 Council conclusions European Universities initiative - Bridging higher education, research, innovation and society: Paving the way for a new dimension in European higher education, have not been addressed appropriately. These issues include guaranteeing sustainable public funding to universities, effective protection of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, ending precariousness and bad working conditions of academics, and ensuring the involvement of social partners in decision making.

The European Commission’s goal for the new initiative is to expand the number of the European Universities’ Alliances from 41 to 60 by mid-2024 with the involvement of more than 500 universities. The new initiative promotes the establishment of a legal status for the European University Alliances projects, to introduce “European Degree” labels for their joint programmes, while asking them to share their resources, including the academics. ETUCE member organisations see these recommendations as a strong step towards harmonisation of higher education and research which poses an enormous risk to institutional autonomy and national competence on education. Furthermore, even though the Council proposal asks countries to respect academic freedom, it promotes at the same time more business-university partnerships for curricula design, the hiring of non-academics to universities and the use of universities as companies’ research and development department. This will consequently increasingly shrink academic freedom and institutional autonomy. In addition, ETUCE is concerned about the EU policy aiming at extending micro-credentials within higher education instead of improving investment in the university sector and providing decent salary and working conditions for academics.

ETUCE informed its member organisations on this policy initiative and the opportunity to lobby governments to include the demands of the education trade unions in the negotiations. The Council Recommendation is planned to be adopted by the Education Council of the European Union on 4-5 April, 2022. 

Proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation is available in all EU languages here. This was accompanied by the Commission Communication on a European strategy for universities which is available in all EU languages here.