EUA : European University Association


Autonomy and accountability move to top of European higher education agenda

EUA President, Prof. Georg Winckler, <br/> with Prof. Tadeusz Luty, Rector of <br/> Wroclaw University of Technology
EUA President, Prof. Georg Winckler,
with Prof. Tadeusz Luty, Rector of
Wroclaw University of Technology

EUA’s Autumn conference last week has highlighted the extent to which the issues of university autonomy and accountability are moving to the top of the European higher education agenda.

300 participants from over 40 countries, congregated at the Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland to discuss how these two interrelated issues could provide the appropriate conditions for strengthening Europe’s universities.

EUA President, Professor Georg Winckler, stressed in his final speech that autonomy was not an end to itself but a vital means for universities to act quickly in a fast-changing globalised higher education environment. In particular, he said that greater autonomy was crucial for universities to respond to demographic changes, to attract international talent, and to raise necessary additional funding. Professor Winckler underlined that universities needed, within their national systems ‘operational’ autonomy and not just ‘theoretical’ autonomy. All universities should have the capacity to: define and pursue their mission; to adjust internal structures; to manage and recruit academic and administrative staff; and to manage budgets and to raise external funds.

All participants agreed that greater autonomy meant a readiness to be accountable to key stakeholders; including students, governments, parents and business. During the meeting, university leaders discussed the advantages and disadvantages of different types of external accountability used across Europe, covering issues such as the composition of governing boards, the use of full cost systems, and even the impact of rankings.

Professor Winckler also urged universities to improve their internal quality processes. It was up to leaders to demonstrate the value of internal processes to university staff, he said, and to use the results to implement future improvements rather than focusing on ‘staff sanctions’. To create an effective quality culture, leaders should look to ensure ownership of the quality process by the academic community, to make sure students were involved, and to rely on younger staff to be ‘quality champions’, he added.

The conference highlighted the need for coherent national frameworks that balance autonomy and accountability, but avoid micromanagement by the state. Professor Winckler explained that following the conference debates, EUA would work on a project to map and assess the issues of autonomy and governance across Europe in order to identify obstacles and success factors in specific countries. “EUA has a central role to play in ensuring that reforms in these areas provide the appropriate conditions for strengthening Europe’s universities and promoting a European knowledge society,” he said.

To find out more about the conference and to download presentations from the event, please visit this website. 

Plenary presentation: universities should improve governance systems

Universities should adapt more quickly to change. This was one of the central messages of a keynote presentation by Professor Luc Weber, University of Geneva, during the EUA autumn conference.

Pointing to the challenges created by globalisation, such as increasing competition between higher education (HE) institutions and the rise of new HE providers, Professor Weber underlined that universities were adaptable to change and had proved this over the centuries. However, he questioned whether the ‘bottom-up’ model of university governance was capable of responding to needs of the European knowledge society and rapid environmental changes.

Professor Weber said universities needed to have a strong clear mission, adding that “no single institution could do everything well”. The challenge to improve university governance was to design systems that could take full advantage of teaching and research capacities whilst enabling the strategic conduct of an institution. Governance was also a question of strong leadership, he said, explaining that the rector or leader needed to be a visionary, a strategist and fine politician, but someone with ‘thick skin’.  

Underling the difficulties currently facing European higher education, Professor Weber concluded that: “European universities should improve their governance systems and have strong leadership.”

Please click here to see Professor Weber’s presentation.

Enhancing the implementation of ECTS

The EUA Council held an important discussion on the future development of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) during its meeting in Wroclaw, Poland on October 24th 2007.

Currently the European Commission is undertaking a review of the ECTS reference documents (ECTS Key Features and Users’ Guide) to bring them in line with developments in the Bologna Process and to make ECTS a more effective tool in the context of lifelong learning.

The EUA Council emphasised that the voice of universities and students must be heard in this debate, as EUA has committed in the Lisbon Declaration that “universities wish to take a leading role in the further development of ECTS”. This follows the findings of Trends V and Bologna with Student Eyes that, although ECTS is being increasingly used throughout Europe’s universities, considerable difficulties are being experienced in the implementation of the system.

ECTS began at the end of the 1980s as a credit transfer system to facilitate student mobility within the Erasmus programme. In recent years, however, European higher education has begun to shift from teacher-centred higher education towards a culture of student-centred learning, where the focus is upon the learning outcomes achieved by students. In this context, ECTS can be a powerful and effective tool not only for credit transfer but also for credit accumulation, with curricula planned on the basis of credits that are awarded for learning outcomes achieved after an estimated student workload. This notion of credit accumulation requires both a clear definition and understanding of learning outcomes, and trustworthy methods to estimate student workload.

Furthermore, developing an understanding of learning outcomes allows for the possibility of recognising learning that takes place outside formal higher education programmes, such as in the workplace or in non formal education settings. ECTS can thus be developed to facilitate more flexible admission and learning paths – a crucial goal in the context of lifelong learning.

To achieve all these goals, however, ECTS reference documents need to be updated to respond to the questions of universities and students. EUA is particularly concerned to ensure that clear guidelines are provided to universities both on the different purposes of ECTS, and on measures to ensure proper implementation. With such guidelines in place, universities will be able to take full responsibility for using the system well and for further developing it to respond to emerging challenges. EUA is thus fully committed to the development of this vital European credit system.

EUA welcomes new members

On the occasion of the EUA Council meeting in Wroclaw on October 24th eight new institutions were welcomed as full individual members:

  • Université de Bretagne Sud (France)
  • University of Technology of Troyes (France)
  • Latvia University of Agriculture (Latvia)
  • Namik Kemal University (Turkey)
  • Yeditepe University (Turkey)
  • Kremenchuk Mykhailo Ostrogradskyi State Polytechnic University (Ukraine)
  • Ternopil National Economic University (Ukraine)
  • University of Wales, Bangor (United Kingdom).

Three further institutions were also welcomed as associate members:

  • Christian University “Dimitrie Cantemir” (Romania)
  • T.C. Kadir Has University (Turkey)
  • University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (United Kingdom).

One association has also been welcomed as an affiliate member:

  • Associacio Catalana d’Universitats Publiques (ACUP – Spain).

EUA looks forward to working closely with each institution in promoting partnerships in higher education and research in Europe.

Dubrovnik Conference: pursuing the European debate on autonomy and accountability

The debate on university autonomy and accountability that was launched in Wroclaw was pursued in Dubrovnik in the context of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans a few days later.

The Dubrovnik Conference (29-31 October 2007) was a follow-up to the Novi Sad Initiative launched two years ago by the University of Novi Sad and partner organisations to address questions of institutional reform and regional cooperation in the creation of the European Higher Education Area.

The Universities of Zagreb, Novi Sad and Vienna joined forces now to organise this important conference, and over 100 participants gathered in Dubrovnik from all the countries of the Western Balkans, with many coming also from the wider European area. An in-depth debate on the challenges in the region concluded with an acknowledgement that, although progress has been made in the past two years, concrete action now needs to be accelerated. As Professor Ladislav Novak, the main driving force of the Initiative explained:

We need to create an environment where real reforms can occur. Universities need to have the autonomy to respond to changing societal needs, and have to be accountable to society for what they do. This means we have to reconsider the relationship of governments and universities, and to think about different buffer bodies that might be helpful. There are also specific issues that need to be addressed in our region, particularly in the way universities are organised and managed. As far as regional cooperation is concerned, there is no doubt that many topics lend themselves to such efforts. For example, developing academic and student mobility, creating an attractive and competitive research environment, improving quality, involving and supporting students properly are just a few areas where we could benefit from closer cooperation. The important thing is that in Dubrovnik we agreed on a broad range of concrete actions that we hope will gather widespread support, and which we can also use to measure our progress at future events.