Norwegian comment to the European strategy for universities and the Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation – April 2022

Norway welcomes the Commission Communication and the Council Conclusion on a European strategy for universities, and the Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation. Overall, these initiatives aimed at strengthening transnational cooperation have been met with positive response by Norwegian stakeholders. The EU and Norway enjoy a particularly close and longstanding cooperation within higher education, research and innovation, based on the EEA Agreement. As an EEA EFTA State Norway takes strong interest in contributing to further policy development and actions aimed at strengthening European higher education institutions and promoting transnational cooperation, both at political and at officials level, in dialogue with the Commission, the EU Member States, and where relevant also other European and international partners, including EHEA members.

Effective European higher education cooperation has been on the European agenda for decades. Together, we have achieved substantial progress, for instance through the Bologna process, but obstacles still remain. Norway sees the strategy and the Council Recommendation as ambitious, and as notable steps to bring this important work further. We strongly welcome the opportunities thus provided for further dialogue between Member States, Associated Countries, and the Commission, and for exploration of new or strengthened measures to promote deeper and more long-term and flexible transnational cooperation. At the same time, it is necessary to keep in mind respect for the principles of subsidiarity, institutional autonomy, and academic freedom, as well as the diversity of higher education institutions in Europe.

Norway also supports joint efforts aimed at strenthening the European dimension in higher education, research and innovation as well as the synergies between them, responding to recovery and the green and digital transitions, promoting Europe’s global role and leadership and deepening the sense of European belonging based on common values. Bearing in mind the central role of higher education in the “knowledge square”, we would welcome even more emphasis on the synergies between higher education, research and innovation as well as lifelong learning and labour market relevance in future discussions.  

With regards to enhancing European cooperation, Norway would like to present some input to the further discussions and possible implementation of key initiatives.

The European Universities Initiative

Norway fully supports the European University Initiative and the upscaling to 60 European Universities by mid-2024. Several Norwegian universities participate in this initiative, including one university (the University of Oslo) as coordinator of one of the alliances. Norwegian higher education institutions are pleased with this possibility to widen and deepen their cooperation with European partners, and Norway strongly believes this initiative will be a game changer for closer collaboration between European higher education institutions. European universities can be in the forefront in developing a common, long-term, structural, sustainable and systemic cooperation on education, research, and innovation, and in reaching the joint objectives. Experiences from European Universities can moreover help identify existing national barriers to closer cooperation between higher education institutions.  

Norway sees the diversity of European higher education as an asset. In the further development of the European Universities, it is necessary to safeguard and foster both the diversity of the sector as such, and the diversity of different transnational alliances of higher education institutions. The autonomy of higher education institutions, including their ability to chose between a variety of modes of cooperation, needs to be respected at all levels and times.

Although the European University Initiative has been a success so far, we should avoid the temptation of overloading these alliances with too many tasks and purposes. The alliances must have time to develop professionally. Quality should always be the main principle for future development.

We also need to take into account that not all higher education institutions will or can be part of the European University Initiative. Experiences and policies developed under the auspices of the European Universities Initiative could serve as a model for co-operation between higher education institutions that are not part of the initiative. Experiences and insight gained should be transferable in such a way that they could be widely used among other types of alliances as well. In order for this to be the case, we believe it is important that the models developed do not require elements such as legal requirements reserved exclusively for these alliances. In other words, any legal instrument developed through the European University Initiative should be conceived in a way that makes it possible to use by other allicances and networks.

A legal statute for university alliances

Norway welcomes increased European efforts and cooperation to remove structural barriers to transnational cooperation. At the current stage, it is difficult to get the full picture of all the implications of introducing a legal statute for university alliances. It is clear to us, however, that the initiative raises a number of legal, financial, and organisational questions. We therefore support further exploration and considerations at European level, with the aim of clarifying the implications of a potential legal statute, as well as ensuring the feasibility of and need for a possible legal statute. This exploration and considerations must not be limited to practical and organisational issues. It is important to thoroughly assess and concretizise legal aspects, including the relationship between the legal statute for alliances of universities and the national legal statute of each university. Further, given the variety in systems of financing higher education in Europe, it is equally necessary to consider the financial implications of a potential legal statute, both as regards student mobility between systems of free tuition and of tuition fees, and labour law issues for the employment and mobility of staff.

A possible legal statute for alliances of higher education institutions must in any case respect the institutional autonomy of the participating higher education institutions, and the diversity of European higher education institutions, and be used on a voluntary basis. It is also important to avoid development of parallel legal structures.

A joint European degree

Norway supports further exploration of a possible joint European degree as a means to strengthen transnational cooperation in higher education. If established, a European degree should be flexible, reduce administrative burdens and offer added value. It it is also vital that such a degree is in accordance with, and further builds on, the tools and instruments already developed and adopted in the Bologna process. In the further considerations, it is important to assess which challenges could be solved by stepping up efforts to implement the Bologna instruments, and what additional measures would be needed. We believe that a Bologna instrument like the European approach to quality assurance of joint programmes is already sufficient for the quality assurance of joint degrees if implemented properly by EHEA members. In order to enhance European cooperation we should also build on and strengthen other structural elements, such as a compatible and comparable degree system as developed for the EHEA, the use of ECTS, the qualifications framework for the EHEA, and recognition tools. We agree that there seems to be a lack of instruments to handle challenges concerning differences in financial aspects such as tuition fees, and that there may be a need to tackle these issues.

It is also necessary to address the issue of who would issue a possible joint European degree. In order to take on the responsibility of issuing a degree, clear and long-term administrative responsibility must be in place, as in times of life-long learning, graduates will require verification and proof of validity of their qualification for decades after graduation. In addition, it is important to maintain and adhere to the quality assurance systems that have been developed, and the principles of external quality assurance of the ESG. When considering what further action to take, we believe it is highly important not to establish parallel structures and tools to the ones already developed in the EHEA, but make use of the systems already in place and focus on good and proper implementation and use of existing tools.

The European Student Card Initiative

Norway fully supports the European Student Card Initiative, and agrees that this initiative will facilitate access to international student mobility at all levels. In order for the European Student Card Initiative to be successful, it needs to be fully compatible with national IT systems, and transitional provision needs to be developed as the readiness when it comes to compatibility varies between countries.

International student mobility should be an integral part of all programmes of study, and this requires adequate digital systems. This applies in particular in connection with systems for handling applications for mobility stays, but also with regard to information in general. With time, the aim should be that the European Student Card Initiative will digitalise all administrative aspects of student mobility.