17 May 2007

European higher education urged to raise ambitions: Open University Vice-Chancellor

Higher education across Europe must raise its ambitions – including increasing flexibility and developing a more relevant curriculum – in the face of globalisation that is now making borders in education meaningless, Professor Brenda Gourley, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, has urged.

Presenting the keynote address at the Bologna Fifth Ministerial Conference in London earlier today (Thursday May 17), she warned that globalisation has dramatically increased competition in the higher education arena – and entreated the European HE sector to take careful note of the fast-developing sectors in the East.

“The East is producing more engineers, more maths graduates, more high-skill graduates than ever before. They are smart, fast, hungry and hard-working – and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) will be out of business if they don’t give attention and investment to their education systems – soon,” she said.

One of the aims of the Bologna Process is to establish a European Higher Education Area by 2010.

In calling for the existing agenda for Bologna signatories to be “a lot more ambitious”, Professor Gourley said: “What the EHEA needs to do is get much, much more flexible in how education is delivered and more focused on what curriculum is relevant.” More engagement with industry and employers and a greater importance attached to quality assurance are also vital objectives for the sector, she added.

“I also argue that collaboration is a strategic response to the global context – and indeed is a survival strategy – and we can harness a global trend in collaboration to this end. And all this is urgent. Otherwise, while we are talking about diploma supplements and Erasmus programmes and whether or not we believe in quality assurance, China and India are going to come and take our lunch.”

Earlier, Professor Gourley had outlined the context in which the Bologna Process is operating, and referred to a “seismic shift in higher education”, evidenced by technological advances, globalisation, the increase in the number of tertiary level students, and the blurring of public and private provision in the sector.

“To this, I would add the blurring of distance and residential and of full-time and part-time study; dramatically changing government policies on the funding of higher education; and research funding becoming ever more concentrated. I would also add the amazing social changes prompted by the new technologies and media, to say nothing of fundamental shifts in the world economy,” she said.

Professor Gourley also highlighted a number of policy interventions that will be required of national governments and at the European level in order for the position and status of higher education in the EHEA to be maintained:
- increased investment in education, and especially in higher education;
- investment in cyber-infrastructure to harness the opportunities presented by technological innovation for higher education;
- a continued focus on developing robust quality assurance systems;
- greater encouragement of part-time study to incentivise and promote lifelong learning;
- improved access to higher education for low-skilled members of the population;
- encouragement of “virtual” mobility (as opposed to physical mobility) for staff and students in higher education.

Editor's Notes
The conference – on Thursday, May 17 and Friday, May 18 – sees ministers responsible for higher education from 45 countries discussing progress made in the Bologna Process. The main Bologna reforms concentrate on the three-cycle degree structure (bachelor, master, doctorate); on quality assurance in higher education; and on the recognition of qualifications and periods of study.

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