While the Dutch Government focuses on limiting internationalisation in higher education (see ITEM Briefs no. 6), the EU Commission is clearly committed to building a European Education Area. On Wednesday, March 27th 2024, the European Commission published a higher education package, which consists of three initiatives aiming to foster deeper transnational cooperation among higher education institutions across the EU. The package includes:

  1. a Communication on a blueprint for a European degree;
  2. a proposal for a Council recommendation to improve quality assurance processes and automatic recognition of qualifications in higher education; and
  3. a proposal for a Council recommendation to make academic careers more attractive and sustainable.

Based on a common framework and co-created criteria on the European level, Member States would on voluntary basis have the possibility to award a joint European degree at national, regional or institutional level in cooperation with a group of universities across the Europe.  Such a European (joint) degree would promote the visibility and recognition of skills and competences in Europe and enable easier mobility for learning and professional purposes.

The proposal could lead to positive outcomes for citizens who are highly mobile in cross-border regions: living, working and/or studying across national borders. Currently, limited recognition of degrees and professional qualifications poses a barrier to the mobility of students and professionals. However, it is worth noting that such automatic recognition should already be achieved by existing instruments like the Bologna Process and the Lisbon Convention. However, these instruments have not yet been fully and effectively implemented.  In fact, the Benelux countries have found their own solution and signed an agreement on mutual recognition of qualifications. This raises the question: What additional value does the ‘European degree’ bring to the table compared to existing instruments? The answer may lie in examining the joint degrees that the proposal aims to address.

At the moment, varying national legislations may not permit issuing a joint degree in collaboration with foreign higher education institutions. Conflicts in legislation regarding the design and delivery of a joint degree may also arise, particularly concerning aspects such as quality assurance, curriculum, and tuition fee arrangements. Thus, with a European degree, the proposal aims to make it easier for universities from different countries to cooperate and develop innovative joint programmes leading to a joint degree. The advantage of pursuing a joint degree lies in the collaborative curriculum developed by higher education institutions in multiple Member States. By engaging in a joint programme, students can acquire a diverse set of competencies and skills, thereby broadening their opportunities and transparency of their qualifications for employment across the (cross-border) labour markets in Europe.

The European (Joint) Degree has been in the making since 2022.  In that year, the European Commission published several pilot projects on testing the criteria of an ‘European degree label’. ITEM participates in one of these pilots, the FOCI-project (Future-proof Criteria for Innovative European Education), a common effort of three university alliances: YUFE, EPICUR, and ECIU. The European Commission is perhaps in haste to adopt the European degree due to the upcoming European parliament elections in June, as they adopted the proposal for the European degree before the pilot projects had officially concluded.

The preliminary findings of the FOCI-project suggest that to ensure the European degree (label) initiative remains relevant and future-proof in the long term, it should broaden its scope to encompass additional innovative forms of higher education learning, such as micro-credentials, rather than solely focusing on full higher education programmes. Other key questions on the Commission’s initiative relate to the purpose of such a European degree (label). This question was also brought up during the Commission’s press conference: What does the European degree offer that established joint degrees do not?

The Commissioners (Margaritis Schinas, Iliana Ivanova) answered shortly: “It is a European joint degree”. Thus, a focus point seems to be in strengthening a European identity in education. However, this answer reminds about a concern expressed during the public consultations: The European degree should not establish a two-tier system within Europe, where other joint degrees or national degrees lacking the “European degree” distinction are perceived as having lesser value or quality.

The European Commission envisages a gradual implementation of the proposal. The road to a European degree would start with a preparatory European label which would be issued for joint degree programmes meeting the common European criteria, by means of a certificate that students would receive with their joint degree. Finally, Member States would work towards integrating the European degree in their national or regional legislation. Achieving this ultimate outcome, however, still necessitates considerable effort. As the European Commission highlights the voluntary nature of the European degree, it should be kept in mind that organisation of higher education remains the competence of the Member States. Without the trust and support of the Member States, the European degree risks being nothing more than a mere label, lacking the substantive impact the European Commission envisions.

Next, the European Commission will discuss the higher education package with the Council of the EU and stakeholders in higher education. In 2025, the Commission is planning to launch a ‘European degree policy lab’ and ‘European degree pathway projects’ to develop guidelines and a pathway towards a European degree.