Higher education & research trade unions: Growth of private-public alliances means we must act to protect academic freedom and working conditions


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Trade unionists and representatives from 21 European countries gathered in Brussels on 4-5 February 2020 for a meeting of ETUCE’s Higher Education and Research Standing Committee (HERSC).

A fruitful working group discussion on trade union renewal in the higher education and research sector took place on the first day, linked to ETUCE’s ongoing YOUR TURN! project. Despite considerable differences in terms of their size and their national context, it turned out that education trade unions across Europe face similar challenges. Some of them concern recruiting, organising and mobilising their members; others relate to the battle for more gender equality, especially in more senior academic positions. HERSC members spoke out for more international collaboration to address these issues together.

On the second day, Maria Palladino from the European Commission Unit on Innovation and EIT presented the Commission’s initiatives to push for more alliances between higher education institutions and private businesses. One important tool for this is HEInnovate, a knowledge exchange and collaboration platform which also constitutes a policy learning network. HEInnovate will be used in OECD country reviews. HERSC members present expressed concerns about the impacts of public-private partnerships on academic freedom and institutional autonomy, intellectual property protection, transparency and working conditions. During the following reflection discussion on privatisation and public-private partnership in higher education amongst the HERSC members, it was agreed that the voice of academic staff must be at the core of the debate.

Harpa Arnarsdottir from the European Commission Unit on Higher Education presented the programme for ERASMUS 2021-2027, which is still subject to negotiation. Whereas the student mobility for studies and traineeships as well as the staff mobility for teaching and training is to be continued as before, new measures will be taken to enhance inclusivity and accessibility for students and teachers. Important changes concern blended mobility, which combines a short-term stay of at least five days complemented with a virtual component, short term mobility for doctoral candidates, and an increased flexibility in opening the programmes to non-EU participants.

Furthermore, the HERSC participants discussed recent developments in the Bologna Process and preparations for the upcoming Rome Ministerial meeting. Members were also updated on other relevant Higher Education topics, such as the Croatian Council Presidency’s priorities as well as actions undertaken by Education International.