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Summaries of EU Legislation

Modernising universities

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Modernising universities

The Commission proposes stronger action at European level to implement the necessary reforms to modernise European universities. As key actors in a knowledge economy and knowledge society, universities face many challenges and have to make the necessary reforms to fully participate in the global market place in the fields of teaching, research and innovation. These reforms, which seek to restructure universities, concern in particular mobility, recognition of qualifications, autonomy, skills, funding, excellence and partnership with business.


Communication of 10 May 2006 from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament – Delivering on the modernisation agenda for universities: education, research and innovation [COM(2006) 208 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


With 4 000 establishments, over 17 million students and some 1.5 million staff – of whom 435 000 are researchers – European universities have enormous potential. However, the Commission has identified certain challenges which the Member States and universities must face in order to modernise and restructure higher education and research and compete in the global competition:

  • the standardisation of national university systems and their fragmentation into small structures, which make national, European and international cooperation more difficult and form an obstacle to their diversification and impede their quality;
  • identical courses offered to similar types of student. Other types of training and other target groups tend to be neglected (conversion courses for adults or transition courses for those who have not followed traditional educational pathways);
  • inflexible administrative regulations and long-winded academic recognition procedures. The problem of the transferability of scholarships or loans and pension rights is another obstacle to mobility, training, research or employment in another country;
  • the development of the research environment into one which is open, interactive and competitive, transcending traditional structures;
  • universities and business still underestimate the benefits of exchanging knowledge with each other or are not adapted to do so; lack of resources to ensure that the quality of higher education and research in Europe is comparable to that at American universities.

In this context, European universities are lagging behind in an increasingly competitive market to attract the best researchers and students. However, they need to develop their own potential fully and be able to do so. Even if they share certain values and objectives, it is not necessary to follow an identical model in terms of the balance between education and research, have a similar approach to research or research training or offer similar academic services and subjects. Research must remain a fundamental mission of every education system, but it must be restricted to a limited number of establishments so as to better mobilise resources.

Reforms to develop the potential of European universities

Removing obstacles faced by universities is vital to encourage and speed up mobility, both geographically and between sectors. This relates in particular to researchers.

Advantage should be taken of the opportunities offered by mobility, a source of enrichment for study and work, but it must be made simpler by way of student grants and loans which are portable throughout the EU. The full transferability of pension rights and the elimination of all types of obstacles to occupational mobility, between countries or between sectors, will also facilitate the mobility of staff and researchers, thus stimulating innovation.

Essential reforms for the implementation of the Bologna Process are needed by 2010 throughout the EU. The main aspects are comparable qualifications (short cycle, Bachelor or equivalent, Master, Doctorate); flexible curricula which meet the needs of the labour market; and trustworthy quality assurance systems.

These reforms should not only be based on best practices but also be launched by the national authorities to guarantee their implementation. In parallel, the recognition of academic qualifications should be simplified to ensure rapid procedures, following the example of the system for the recognition of vocational qualifications, which has recently been modernised and simplified.

Universities must be autonomous and responsible in order to encourage innovation and resist change. This calls for a division of tasks between the Member States and universities. The Member States should establish the general framework (rules, policy objectives, funding, incentives). The universities should establish new governance systems based on strategic priorities and on the professional management of human resources, investment and administrative procedures. They should also reduce the fragmentation of their services and entities and assume responsibility for their results.

Incentives to encourage structured partnerships with enterprises will be needed to bring universities closer to the world of business. Beyond their original mission, universities must realise their role as economic actors and be better equipped to meet demand from the market in order to increase the impact of their research. These structured partnerships must strengthen interactions between universities and enterprises (funding, opportunities for researchers, etc.). Incentives will therefore be essential to establish the necessary structures in universities, develop entrepreneurial spirit and management, business and innovation skills.

Universities must also provide knowledge and skills geared to the needs of the labour market. In other words, graduates' qualifications must meet the needs of the labour market. All levels of education are concerned, including adult education. This approach must be in line with the agenda on lifelong learning. Innovative curricula, teaching methods and continuing or refresher training courses combining general and specific skills will help to meet these needs. Universities must also embrace an enterprise culture, and placements in industry must be recognised so that they can be fully integrated into courses. In this context, access to the labour market should serve as an indicator of the quality and performance of universities.

This means, for example, that doctoral candidates wishing to work in research must acquire, in addition to their research training, skills relating to the management of intellectual property rights, communication, working in a network, entrepreneurship and team working.

University funding must be reformed so that a level of teaching and research excellence can be achieved in accordance with the Lisbon Strategy, the aim of which is to commit 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) to a modernised higher education system by 2010. Moreover, universities should fully assume their role in European research by way of more investment (the objective is to invest 3% of GDP in research and development by 2010). In parallel, the funding of students should be amended to ensure greater fairness between students, in particular those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, as regards university admittance and chances of success.

For this reason, the funding should be results-oriented, rather than resources-oriented. It should also be more diverse and include more private funding, especially for research. A good balance between basic funding and funding resulting from calls for tender or linked to results will therefore be necessary. Moreover, this second category of funding must be based on performance indicators in order to clearly measure the relationship between resources invested (inputs) and results obtained, both economic and social (outputs). In this way, universities will be more responsible for their own financial viability.

Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are vital for universities, which have to adapt to new opportunities and new issues arising from trends in each field. Universities will therefore have to redefine their education and research priorities by focusing more on research fields than scientific disciplines. They must also encourage student, researcher and research team mobility in order to generate more interactions between them. To this end, universities will have to revise their structures and organisations (staff management, evaluation, funding, teaching, etc.).

Universities must promote knowledge by achieving greater involvement of all parts of society. In a knowledge-based society, it is vital for universities to step up communication and dialogue with those affected by their activities and with the whole of society, by way of conferences, open days or forums. They will thus gain credibility and attract more investment. They must also offer lifelong learning opportunities.

Universities must also concentrate on the development of excellence. The attractiveness of universities will be enhanced by the concentration of resources, mobility and increased competition. However, whilst attracting researchers and students, they must also establish flexible and transparent recruitment procedures, ensure research independence and offer attractive career prospects. Excellence also means favouring certain fields.

Excellence encourages the development of networks of postgraduate or doctoral institutions which must meet certain key criteria, such as critical mass, transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, the European dimension, the support of public authorities and enterprises, identified and recognised fields of excellence, a range of post-doctoral studies and a reliable quality assurance system. The creation of the European institute of technology and the European Research Council is in line with this strategy.

The visibility and international attractiveness of the European higher education area and the European research area are essential to strengthen the role of universities and European research in the world. However, to be competitive, their role, openness and quality have to be stepped up. In this context, experience gained by universities in cooperation (consortia, agreements, double degrees), networking and mobility deserve to be further developed beyond Europe. Cooperative ventures should be better structured and supported by appropriate funding and bilateral or multilateral agreements. Openness to the world also means attracting non-European students, teachers and researchers and encouraging European student, teacher and researcher mobility outside Europe.

In this context, it is vital to simplify and speed up the administrative and legal entry procedures for students and researchers from outside the EU. The entry and residence of researchers from third countries have already formed the subject of a package of measures for the issue of visas for researchers in 2005. Recognising qualifications is another essential aspect of the global visibility and attractiveness of European higher education and research. Following the example of the recognition of vocational qualifications, the recognition of academic qualifications should also be encouraged. The European qualifications framework and compatible quality assurance systems mark the beginnings of this. Moreover, double degrees and joint degrees issued by consortia of universities could also be extended and built upon.

Action at European Union level

The Commission is providing political backing with the open method of coordination which Member States use. This allows the identification and dissemination of good practices and support for Member States in the pursuit of more effective university systems.

The Commission can also provide funding to step up the quality and performance of universities. This funding includes the programmes for the period 2007-2013 (the 7th framework programme for research and development, the lifelong learning programme, the Competitiveness and innovation programme), the Structural Funds, focusing on the least developed regions, and loans from the European Investment Bank.

Moreover, the creation of the European Technology Institute will meet the objectives set out in this communication, in particular because it will be focusing on excellence, interdisciplinarity, networks and cooperation between the academic and business worlds.

The Commission also emphasises the importance of coordinating all those concerned in the restructuring and modernisation of universities. The Member States must take these challenges into account when they implement the Integrated guidelines for growth and jobs and the national reform programmes. Universities must make strategy choices to respond to them. Moreover, both the Lisbon programme and the Education and Training 2010 work programme offer support at EU level.


At the informal meeting at Hampton Court in October 2005, research and development and universities were acknowledged as key factors in the EU’s competitiveness. The European Council in the spring of 2006 called for stronger action to drive forward successive reforms aimed at modernising universities and research.


Communication from the Commission of 21 February 2007 – "A coherent framework of indicators and benchmarks for monitoring progress towards the Lisbon objectives in education and training" [COM(2007) 61 final – Not published in the Official Journal].

Communication from the Commission to the Council and to the European Parliament of 8 September 2006 - "Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems" [COM(2006) 481 final – not published in the Official Journal].

Commission Communication of 20 April 2005 – "Mobilising the brainpower of Europe: enabling universities to make their full contribution to the Lisbon Strategy" [COM(2005) 152 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Communication from the Commission, dated 5 February 2003 – "The role of the universities in the Europe of knowledge" [COM(2003) 58 final – Not published in the Official Journal].

Detailed work programme on the follow-up of the objectives of Education and training systems in Europe [OJ C142/02, 14.6.2002].

Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions - "Towards a European Research Area" [COM(2000) 6 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Bologna declaration of 19 June 1999, adopted by 29 countries with a view to achieving convergence between higher education systems in Europe.

Last updated: 06.09.2007