Contribution to the Discussion on a Development Scheme for European Institutes of Higher Education and Universities

by Professor Jiøí Witzany
AECEF President
Rector of the Czech Technical University in Prague

There is no doubt that European institutes of higher education and universities (hereafter only ”IHE”) are standing on the threshold of adopting and implementing a series of principal reforms. It would be a mistake to presume that the so-called Bologna Declaration has triggered off these reforms.

It is more than evident that the pressure on reforming European institutes of higher education has deeper and more objective causes, which must be sought in the on-going process of social, economic and political changes, intensified concentration and “denationalisation” of production and capital, in rapid development of information and transport systems, in mutual interaction of cultures, growing importance of education, highly demanding research, and, last but not least, in globally launched processes towards the establishment of a democratic and liberal society. These, as well as other reasons, testify to the fact that we are entering a century based on knowledge and communication, a century of international or trans-national education.

As the previous period accentuated namely cooperation and organised horizontal exchange of students and academic staff members within the existing and often different structures of higher educational institutes, the principal focus in the forthcoming period, in turn, will be on implementation of such structural measures that will facilitate not only intensification of this type of cooperation, but, above all, introducing fundamental quantitative changes within the area of inter-university cooperation.

The integration process within European IHE and universities, however, should not be directed towards a kind of unification. It is essential that this process does not suppress, but, on the contrary, in a certain sense, promotes a diversification of European IHE and universities reflecting cultural and economic development of the respective country and diversification based on traditions and personalities belonging to the university. This process is far from being straightforward. Nevertheless, we may presume that it is, in particular`, the compatibility of the structure, awarded degrees and transparency of educational systems at European institutes of higher education on the one hand, together with a certain diversification of the content, form and layout of educational processes on the other hand that may become a significant factor and support in facilitating not only students’ mobility, but also inter-university cooperation.

It will be necessary to launch accreditation programmes for European education aimed on comparability of awarded degrees, enhanced mobility of students and international competitiveness of European universities. Europe is characterised namely by public systems of university education.

The present-day diversity of awarded degrees and universities is accompanied by considerable diversity of quality control systems. As there are no mechanisms for international recognition of these quality systems, we may presume that obstacles may arise on the way towards mutual recognition of credits impeding thus students’ mobility. No mechanisms have been developed to allow for credit transfers in relation to the content and quality of study programmes. Among serious obstacles to students’ mobility there are also language and economic differences of European universities and frequently insufficient legibility concerning their level and quality. In a number of cases universities lack adequately organised systems providing care and services to international students. Until the moment when these barriers are removed, no significant growth in the students’ mobility to a level comparable to North-American universities may be expected. Insufficient awareness of significance of European educational space and excessive introvert nature and links of European universities to state funding and national space will doubtless constitute the major causes of slow action and slow pace in taking the necessary measures. There is a danger that the predominantly traditional national systems of higher education will feel under threat of losing their identity.

The high level and quality of study at European IHE and universities as seen from the international perspective may be, among other factors, a decisive argument in favour of their attractiveness for recruiting high-quality non-European international students. It will, however, require adoption of a number of corresponding measures not only in the area of recruiting international students, but also in ensuring high-quality study programmes in English. There are also other questions to solve, which could be labelled as overall quality of the university environment including such facilities as university libraries, information, computer and Internet networks, university clubbing, sporting and social facilities, the level of inter-university relations, administration and management etc. Recruitment of international students coming from non-European countries and from overseas will require, apart from an offer of high-quality educational programmes and courses, the necessary amendment of a number of legislative and other regulative measures impeding admittance of international students to universities.

The study programmes, methods and forms of instruction and courses of life-long education must be prepared by universities with regard to European, not only national educational space. It will become necessary for European universities to adopt more distinct orientation on non-European students. The organisation system and staff must be developed on an international, not only national level. The institutional framework of university, study programmes and research laid out in this way may undergo international accreditation.

The Bologna Declaration as part of a general movement, launched in Europe, must be understood, in the first place, as a challenge for a dialogue within but also outside universities. The dialogue should be directed towards greater cooperation among universities, towards mobility, towards “international” education and towards overall strengthening of the importance of universities, which may play a significant role in the European and world-wide integration and democratisation process. In developing their long-term policies and strategies, European institutes of higher education and universities must be aware of the European multinational and multicultural environment and European labour market. They must be prepared to react to the increasingly faster changing external environment. The majority of universities depend on financial resources allocated by the numbers of students. The nearest future will definitely be characterised by a greater option to choose, and a wider choice of institutes of higher education or universities, by the pressure on the part of the Government to 0shorten the study (economisation of higher education – institutes of higher education are no longer protected from the direct effect of economic interests of the governments in the way they used to in the first half of the 20th century), by growing numbers of applicants for study at universities, and we may expect that as a result of a potential greater and freer choice, removal of regulative and restrictive measures and establishment of a number of educational institutions of a non-university type, there will successively be a gradual stagnation and relative drop in the numbers of applicants for study at individual IHE and universities.

The implementation of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree study programmes in keeping with the Bologna Declaration represents an opportunity for seeking balance between external, European conditions, national and institutional autonomy, for creating space for international convergence, respecting the principles of national competencies.

The precondition for higher students’ mobility is not only a possibility for credit transfer and mutual recognition of credits, but also completed degree courses among individual universities and European countries.

The permanent pressure on cost-efficiency in higher education requires the necessity for strengthening the institutional management of universities, increased effectiveness and efficiency of administrative and economic apparatus using information processes and modern management. The basic and component part of the measures aimed at higher effectiveness of higher education consists, above all, in high-quality educational systems and study programmes. The IHE and universities will not be able to survive without active marketing and professional management. A persistent pressure on cutting the costs spent on IHE will probably require seeking alternative non-governmental funds.

The hitherto applied systems of management and organisation of higher education are better suited for stable external conditions. A number of models applied at the European IHE and universities have the character of collegiate management, which is the result of the pressure on the democratisation of their internal organisation and democratisation of education. Its main disadvantage consists in frequent consultations and discussions reflecting, in numerous cases, unwillingness to accept changes.

Collegiate or segmental management is based on complete autonomy of individual segments – sections, departments and faculties – in the area of education and R&D activities. The faculty management provides coordination of their activity from the point of view of implementation of study programmes, setting and observing the directives and regulations connected with the implementation of study programmes, providing teaching facilities, supporting facilities, the equipment of lecture halls and laboratories and financial resources.

But in order to be able to manage an IHE or university in a dynamically changing environment, it will become necessary to distinguish between the mechanisms implemented at an IHE or university as an educational academic institution and those controlling the IHE or university as an organisation creating optimum conditions for the implementation of study programmes and R&D activities.

The growing economic pressure on the efficiency of management of IHE and universities and limited financial resources on the one hand, together with the need for high-quality study and research, which cannot be achieved without top and high-quality academic staff members (with adequate remuneration) and top-quality equipment of research and educational workplaces (requiring corresponding investment sources) on the other, call for efficient fund management, based on an effective organisational structure and an economical management model applied within the IHE or university. In this area – providing, managing and using financial resources – a hierarchic (pyramidal) organisational structure and line management must be applied. Reaching the required functionality and efficiency in this crucial area of IHE and university management needs a clear formulation of targets, the support of academic community, motivation and responsibility at individual management levels.

Among fundamental reforms of European IHE and universities there is indisputably transition to a structured system of study and Europe-wide recognised degrees, awarded diplomas or qualifications and certificates.

A number of reforms are characterised by a shift towards shorter study. On the other hand, however, it is evident that preparation of qualified experts with higher education exerts a pressure towards extension of study. The solution to this problem must be sought in restructuring the system and method of teaching, in the content and form of the taught disciplines, in the need for encouraging student’s interest in learning and in overall restructuring of study.

An optimum model seems to be structured study arranged in a series. In the case of parallel running of the structured and present-day long system of study there appears – at least in the transitory period – a real danger of poorer quality of the Bachelor’s degree programmes as a consequence of potential absence of better students, who will choose the long study. The completion of the lower cycle as a condition for entering the upper cycle, without which the main targets of this reform cannot be implemented, therefore, seems to be highly desirable. The wider the area in which this system will be applied, the better the overall optimum effect will be reached.

The introduction of structured study will require redevelopment of the existing curricula of classic study implemented at institutes of higher education. This, however, does not mean only a different time distribution, but, at the same time, necessary interventions in the curricula of individual courses. The Bachelor’s degree study level must contain a necessary amount of theoretic (generally applicable), as well as so-called preparatory courses. The total amount of theoretic and preparatory courses at the first and second study levels should not, in any case, fall behind their current proportion within the present study system.

The discussions on and the preparation of a transition towards structured study at individual universities must be preceded by clarification of the graduates’ profiles at individual levels of structured study.

The applied method and content of study must guide students to closer contact with scientific methods of work. In a number of cases it is necessary to do away with the still existing dogma that the study programme must be comprised of every specialisation and professional and research field of the studied branch, avoiding thus strict training of students. This, in its turn, leads to unjustifiable expansion of instruction and reduction of extended and deepened study according to individual interests, limitation of students’ participation in the work of institutions and departments and, on the whole, to a passive approach to study. Special and informal attention must be focused on the first attempts of students’ research and their inclusion in the solution of research grants etc.

Among positive aspects of introducing a structured study system, is undoubtedly higher efficiency of the exploitation of the resources spent on tertiary education, greater dynamics of the educational system, the possibility of admitting larger numbers of applicants with a simultaneous preservation of the necessary quality of study by means of structured study, reduction of the percentage of students who drop out of study as a rule after the first year of study due to their failure to manage the transition to university. We may also expect a higher professional level of the graduates in Master’s degree study programmes due to better contacts between the students and teachers, as well as their participation in departmental activities and projects solved within departments.

The option for terminating one’s study after the completion of the first, Bachelor’s, level is also of high importance for the students. This is not possible in the case of a one-level study where the students who fail to complete their study for various reasons leave school without being awarded any qualifying degree. In this so-called "tunnel" system of study, up to 70 % of the total number of students remain inside the "tunnel". The structured system of study also presumes closer co-operation of institutes of higher education with professional and business unions. Greater support on the part of industry may also be expected.

Among the problems to come there will undoubtedly appear the problem of preserving the quality of study, namely due to its greater orientation on practically applicable knowledge to the detriment of purely theoretic courses on the first level. Increased pressure on the presence of practically relevant passages within the study orientation on the first level must not be accompanied by undesirable approaches and methods of instruction. At the initial stage of study it is already necessary to put stress on understanding causal relations, on perceiving the "depth" of a given problem, on educating towards critical thinking. In talking about quality, it is necessary to keep in mind, above all, the quality of the educational process itself; i.e. communication of knowledge, its explanation and verification, not only its amounts. Here it is necessary to stress the need for acquiring the capability of not only applying, but also permanently developing one’s own knowledge through study. For this reason, at the very first stage of study, students should be given a good basic theoretic knowledge, so that they are able to make further contributions to it within the framework of the higher, Master’s degree study programme or within the programme of life-long education. Bachelor’s degree study programmes must also include a group (module) of optional courses of theoretic and preparatory orientation, which will allow individual profiling of the students oriented on practical careers after the completion of the Bachelor’s level as well as those who intend to continue their study at the Master’s level. The halftime of professional knowledge is permanently decreasing, and therefore the preconditions for further education must be ranked among those with top priority.

Flexible systems must be based on a credit system, they must be more relevant for professional practice, of multidisciplinary character and they must, above all, create preconditions for access to a higher educational level and life-long education. Master’s degree programmes, if they are to meet the demands for mobility, should be relatively short (12-18 months, but no longer than 24 months). The restructuring scheme should not result in only formal reforms, subdividing the long study programmes into two stages presuming that the absolute majority of students will, after the completion of the previous study level, continue their study in the same branch and at the same IHE. On the other hand, however, moving to the succeeding study level should not imply only changing schools, but a possibility of a choice among a series of alternative follow-up Master’s degree programmes, differing by specialisation and internal content.

An issue of great importance is organisation of instruction, study and examinations, their material and time coordination. A number of branches and study specialisation’s often represent a mere sum of individual theoretic and professional disciplines without direct integration and conditionality. Responsibility for instruction and its efficiency and standards, as well, is frequently limited to individual disciplines and courses, while overall responsibility for the branch of study is insufficient. Students’ guidance, information and feedback are not always of adequate quality.

Among the most common forms and means of evaluation of university education there is internal evaluation, such as evaluation of study and teachers by students, evaluations made by boards set up for this purpose, development of final reports on university activity, evaluations by external experts (peer review) and evaluations carried out by independent evaluation agencies.

It is evident that each of the above-mentioned evaluation methods has its pros and cons. It is therefore advisable to include all these methods in the evaluation process, as each of them is indispensable in a certain area of evaluation.

Harmony between the presumed course, content and objectives of study and their real, actual course and achievements may be verified namely by students’ evaluations. The results of these evaluations have, as a rule, immediate effect.

The relevance and usefulness of the content and extent of students’ preparation in the respective specialisation and branch may be evaluated namely by external experts and institutions. The objectivity of their opinion, however, requires not only good knowledge of practice and its needs, but also the knowledge of university life, educational problems and a capability of wider timeless understanding of the effect of university education. Evaluation by external experts represents namely a significant source of information (feedback) for setting a medium-term conception of university development and orientation of study branches.

Evaluations carried out by independent, e.g. national evaluation agencies, if performed on the basis of objective and generally acceptable criteria, may provide significant information for comparing the actual state of quality assurance in education and the efficiency of educational programmes of individual universities, contributing, at the same time, to creating a competitive environment among universities.

Granting accreditation’s for a limited time, based on objective evaluation methods, is a significant accent supporting the quality of the respective university and its continuous evaluation.

A current discussion deals with the possibilities and arrangement of accreditation procedures to guarantee full international comparability of awarded degrees. It is obvious that the efforts of universities to obtain or maintain international recognition will gradually lead to enforcing the European dimension of programmes and institutions. The mobility of experts with university qualifications and the growing influence of trans-national companies, assurance of consumer protection will sooner or later require quality control of (international) accreditation at European level. Significant documents in this area have been put forward dealing with quality control and accreditation, as well as methods of gradual transformation of national quality control systems to an internationally recognised level. The negotiations of working groups in Paris and Vienna in 2000 resulted in formulating the targets of a project oriented on the development of a European accreditation programme. The targets include:

A precondition for accreditation is quality control, which must guarantee that the adopted evaluation standards will be observed during the accreditation process. The quality control systems should function on both national and European level, being fully transparent. For this reason it is essential to reach an agreement at an international (European level) on acceptable accreditation methods implemented by European accreditation agencies. This agreement is without doubt in the interest of not only students and universities, but also countries. National accreditation procedures should guarantee, above all, the threshold (minimum) quality.

The process leading towards unification of national accreditation procedures should be executed on a voluntary basis and be based on coordinated cooperation of national accreditation agencies. Accreditation should not lead to full unification of the European university educational system, but respect its diversity and traditional values of European higher education.

A common starting point and, at the same time, a precondition for objective evaluation of the quality of education, however, must be based on a consensus on the question, "What is the quality of study?" and what objective criteria to use for its evaluation and verification. Without clearing up these fundamental questions the very best evaluation may miss the mark. Such failure may be prevented if there exists a professional institution dealing with the problems of quality assessment of university study at the level of each university, or within university associations, accreditation committees and the respective ministries. The resources spent on supporting this activity will without doubt return in the form of high efficiency of educational university programmes and high-quality graduates.

It is necessary to point out that the results of quality assessment in education must serve namely as a significant source of information for decision-making and taking measures on the part of university and faculty management’s, not as a pretext for immediate restrictive measures on the part of the university founder. The demanding and complex character of the evaluation process of educational system and achieved quality of the graduates of higher educational institutes require a practice when the respective decision-making is fully within the authority of university management’s, which are also held responsible for the quality in education.

The implementation of the reform of study is connected with a number of related measures. The opening and linking of European IHE and universities to the international educational system implies a guarantee of a high and internationally comparable level and quality of the higher educational institutions with all positive consequences. It also brings about significant contacts and extended international cooperation in science, culture and economy. The solution of a number of problems connected with the implementation of this reform, overcoming traditions and customs, will probably need a longer time. But in no way can it be postponed. It is not a one-step solution, but a continuous process stimulating a wide dialogue within universities, as well as outside them, on education and potential measures aimed at assuring its quality.

The European environment perceives universities namely as institutions handing over the learning and knowledge, reached by mankind in the previous development, to a new generation, as facilities for educating a new generation – intelligentsia, which shall extend this knowledge further in the near future, being able to assimilate and interpret all that ”has happened” and has been revealed by science.

Europe’s lagging behind in a number of areas of science and research into peak technologies has recently brought about a series of measures aiming at integration within the unified Europe, at creating a functioning European educational and research space, associating intellectual and human potential for solving the problems related to economic growth with a focus on health protection, environmental protection and sustainable development.

European IHE and universities can and must play a decisive role within this process. Universities are now more expected to contribute by their prominent share to innovations and economic activities namely by effective research, but also through companies – established innovation and technological centres, focused on accelerated implementation of the achievements of the latest research. Research achievements, human and intellectual potential and knowledge indisputably belong to the most significant economic resources, being an efficient means against unemployment. Universities must be not only educational institutions, but simultaneously also prominent scientific and research institutes with a marked orientation on creative and research work, with a high percentage of cooperation within national and international cooperation agreements.

Concentration of basic and applied university research into several areas has a highly stimulating effect, allowing creation of multidisciplinary teams for solving demanding tasks.

The funds invested in R&D at IHE and universities are invested twice. Apart from supporting their own research, through teaching new knowledge is immediately passed over to students, who successively transfer it into practice. At the same time, students become familiar with the basic methods of research activity. Formulation of even partial results of a research project becomes a significant stimulator affecting positively progress in research. It lets the students look behind the scenes of research activity, teaching them how to ask themselves questions casting doubt on facts and how to seek answers to them. This seeming by-product of scientific and research work at institutes of higher education is not only inspiring, but often equally important, and sometimes even of greater significance than the actual achievements. It is an indispensable part of education of independently thinking and creative individuals, who are able to listen, critically think and lead an open dialogue, not only passively accept facts.

Genuine development of research and scientific work at universities also includes free promulgation and discussion of sometimes even contradictory opinions and approaches.

Universities must incorporate research centres, built on an interdisciplinary basis. Direct links of universities to centres of technology and innovation, concentrated in the immediate vicinity of universities guarantee accelerated application of research in practice. Experience shows that technological centres without direct links to universities are not successful. Technological and innovation centres create the necessary conditions and opportunities for young creative graduates – researchers and businessmen. Technological parks and innovation centres can be also established as parts of institutes and departments or other university workplaces. An important issue is participation of undergraduates and doctoral students in research activity. Foundation of research centres grouping young scientists from various countries is also supported by the European Commission (Centres of Excellence – founded in 1999).

Concentration of research workers around prominent universities is a promise of fast application of the achievements of basic research. As it is done with the participation of students, in addition to its specific results, the research carried out here contributes to the education of a generation to guarantee further development of science with simultaneous practical implementation of research achievements. Well-organised innovation centres focusing on peak technologies guarantee a high level and competitiveness of industry creating extensive job opportunities. In the EU countries the present-day focus is shifting from basic research towards oriented ”quasi-applied” research projects with more promising economic results. The research is expected to bring results that will boost economy and trade, and will assist in solving social problems. Due to ”indirect relation”, the contribution of basic research to economic results and final products is more difficult to define. It is, however, necessary to keep in mind that basic research mainly allows formulation of various working hypotheses creating a fundamental scientific basis from which applied research is derived. With regard to organisation and conditions of research at universities, the essential role of universities should be, above all, in basic research (with orientation on long-term research).

In advanced European countries, municipalities and industry show active support for universities, promoting the development of favourable conditions for high-level education, research and prosperity of universities. For European IHE and universities, as well, close links to public, state and municipal institutions and industry are of essential and vital importance, although this also holds true the other way round. Intellectual potential, represented by individual R&D workplaces at IHE and universities, research workers, undergraduate and doctoral students may achieve significant cultural, technical and technological progress only in connection with specific tasks set by practice.

A high level of culture, arts, science and technology forms a basic precondition for the sustainable development of mankind. The most serious devastation of the environment and resources, as well as violation of social processes aiming towards democracy occurs namely in the countries with a low level of education. Here IHE and universities play their indispensable role as well. Social and economic development of the society is increasingly more dependent on the level of knowledge and education developed at universities.

The leading role of IHE and universities in facilitating progress in science and research, which universities must undertake, sets new demands on academic staff. The necessary qualifications of successful academic staff members must include not only high-level professional knowledge and moral integrity, but also organisational skills: grouping together young scientists – undergraduate students, doctoral students, assistant lecturers – and being able to manage and organise research. This also implies a capability of persuasive powers to justify one’s research plan and skills to obtain sufficient financial resources from grant agencies, industry and municipal authorities, and successively reach the implementation of the achievements of the R&D activity of one’s team. It is not enough to come up with an idea, project etc. and wait until somebody else collects the necessary funds and shows interest. Here, however, support and adequate measures to be taken by IHE and university management and administration are essential. Among other things, there is also a need for significant strengthening of identification of academic staff members and students with “their” IHE and university.

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