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Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh
25th June 2013
Developing the High Education Agenda across the EU

An EU group of experts has been looking at Higher Education. The High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education is chaired by the former Irish President, Mary McAleese.

The group, which was founded last September by Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, has consulted widely with stakeholders as part of its work. It found that many higher education institutes place insufficient emphasis on teaching in comparison with research, although both are core missions of higher education. "This needs rebalancing. The role of teaching in defining academic merit needs a stronger emphasis and recognition, especially in career terms," said the commissioner.

The high-level group will now begin work on the second part of its mission, which is focused on how to maximise the impact of new methods of delivering quality higher education, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), which enable people to access higher education from their home. Partners in 11 countries recently launched the first pan-European MOOCs with the support of the European Commission.

The EU agenda for the modernisation of higher education identifies areas where EU countries need to do more to achieve their shared objectives, and sets out how the European Union can support their modernisation policies. Priorities include improving the quality and relevance of higher education, so curricula meet the needs of students, employers and the careers of the future, as well as increasing the number of graduates. It promotes stronger cooperation between universities, businesses and research right across the EU.

It might, on the surface of it, sound a bit ethereal, but this group has mapped out pathways for improving quality in teaching and learning as it seeks to build new and better opportunities for young people across Europe.

Education, like work, has to evolve and change over time. What was appropriate a century ago is no longer what is in demand in Scotland. We trained people to handle heavy industry jobs in the shipyards, on the railways, in construction because those were the essential skills for the time.

Since then, we’ve seen the economy shift away from those occupations into services like IT, finance, the law and an increasing emphasis upon academic achievement rather than vocational skills.

We need innovation, invention, discovery, smart thinking out of the box - abilities that Scotland has always had in abundance. Ways in which we might better apply those kinds of skills in a global economy.

Scottish inventor of the television, John Logie Baird

Scots have invented or discovered the steam engine, the bicycle, telephone and television, penicillin and insulin as well as things like coal-gas lighting, Europe’s first passenger steamboat and the first iron-hulled steamship.

We also produced the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first English textbook on surgery and even Dolly the Sheep.

More recently, we have become a world-leader in renewable energy technologies and continue to break down barriers in disease prevention and treatment. The ultrasound scanner came from Scotland, as did the MRI body scanner.

I could go on. The central point is straightforward: if you want to be a small country with resoundingly big, world-changing ideas, then stimulus and an exciting environment for discovery is vital.

Scotland offers it in its universities and they attract students from across Europe and indeed the world. That means there is a continual melting pot of new ideas that has expanded to include international cultures and thinking.

The European Union allows us the opportunity to tap into the kinds of institutions, learning and research that gives us access to a vast marketplace and into the research and development of others.

This expert group has come up with some very solid recommendations driving forward sustainable support for higher education institutions’ efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

The members want to see more cognisance of student feedback, every teacher holding a teaching qualification – already the case in Scotland’s state-run schools – ongoing training for staff as mandatory – already the case in Scotland – curriculum development that reflects the labour market demand, all towards ensuring that students acquire relevant skills that enhance their employability.

But perhaps most concrete of all is the recommendation that: “The European Union should support the establishment of a European Academy for Teaching and Learning led by stakeholders and inspired by the good practices reflected in this report.”

 That, I believe, would be a significant step forward in creating a far more pan-European concept of higher education. No member country should be isolated. The more we create together, the more we all learn and benefit.

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