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In Europe, Contradictory Messages About Teaching and Research

Europe_mapRecently in Europe, as in many other countries, there has been a growing focus on research to the detriment of teaching and learning. There are some signs, however, that the pendulum may be beginning to swing back—ever so slowly.

In June, the European Union published the first report from its high-level group on the modernization of higher education, which was chaired by the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. Titled Report to the European Commission on Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning in Europe’s Higher Education Institutions, it has three key points. First, the prioritization of research over teaching and learning, which has led to research being interpreted as the defining characteristic of academic excellence, needs a “sound rebalancing.” Second, given the importance of teaching, faculty members require training to teach at a “high professional standard.” And third, all higher-education institutions should embrace teaching as a core mission to “enable people to learn.”

The report’s 16 recommendations include a mandatory certified training for professors and other higher-education teaching staff, more focus on helping students to develop entrepreneurial and innovative skills, and the creation of a European Academy of Teaching and Learning. There are also recommendations urging higher-education institutions and national policy makers to work in partnership with students to establish counseling, guidance, mentoring, and tracking systems to help students as they make their way into higher education, and then on to graduation and beyond. And there is support for the development and adoption of a holistic internationalization strategy as an integral part of the overall mission.

The European Commission is to be commended for this report. There is lots of good stuff in it that needs to be said at a government level. But will there be actions to back up the words?

The impetus for the report comes from an effort to modernize higher education, which was part of the Europe 2020 plan to make Europe a smart, sustainable, and inclusive economy. Accordingly, education and research received a considerable boost in the recently approved E.U. budget for 2014 to 2020. The program for education, training, and youth will receive approximately $20.2-billion in 2014-20. This represents almost double the current $11.9-billion for 2007-13.

However, in contrast, the research budget is likely to rise to almost $95-billion, up from $68-billion. Since 1984, over $249-billion will have been invested in research.

True, many of the report’s recommendations do not “require large amounts of additional expenditure,” as Androulla Vassiliou, the E.U. commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism, and youth, has said. But are we sending out contradictory messages about the relative importance of teaching, learning, and research in subtle ways?

For example, like the United States and Canada, the E.U. is a federal system. Because member states have authority over higher education, the European Commission’s influence is restricted to using financing as a driver of change. So, can the E.U. ensure that its important teaching and learning report is put to use in a meaningful and effective way, or will the avalanche of research money obscure the message? This is especially disquieting given that the report’s publication received little publicity outside official channels.

A related difficulty is the way we have come to see higher education and research as occupying parallel universes rather than a single system. Research—or science policy—is usually separated from educational policy. For instance, as concerns about global competition have risen, the E.U. has focused on improving the status of its research universities. Under the research plan for 2007-13, 50 percent of the funds were concentrated in just 50 universities. Given how uneven the capability and capacity across and within the E.U.’s member and candidate countries, the new plan is likely to see resources concentrated even further in a handful of universities and countries. How will the E.U. reconcile this process with aspirations to value all missions of higher-education institutions?

U-Multirank—the E.U.’s new ranking system—will play a key part in this process. Due to start in 2014, it will enable comparisons across five different categories, including teaching and learning. Nonetheless, U-Multirank will include some rankings by institutional type, including research-intensive universities based on about 10 research-related, mainly bibliometric, indicators. It’s likely that the public and policy makers could focus solely on this particular view of rankings thereby undermining the whole purpose of the revamped ranking system.

These examples serve to highlight the contradictory messages we often unintentionally send out about the value of teaching and learning. The experience of the Bologna Process, however, which helped ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher-education qualifications across parts of Europe, shows how member states working in tandem with all higher-education institutions can bring about significant change, with a global influence. The challenge is to reproduce that result with respect to teaching and learning—and to overcome the disproportionate status and esteem attached to research, which can drown out higher education’s other missions.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia image by Terraprints]

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