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Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations for the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD), reviews a week of higher education news in which concerns emerged over universities’ financial stability due to Covid-19 and the impact of the crisis on students.
A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.
The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.
A British expert on the Bologna Process for creating comparable and compatible higher education systems across Europe says he does not believe it or the UK's involvement will be de-railed by Britain's decision to leave the European Union.
John Reilly, from the University of Kent, author of a report on The UK in the European Higher Education Area recently published by the British Council, argues that the Bologna process is safe despite the Brexit vote because 20 of the 48 countries involved are outside the EU.
“It is much bigger than the EU and it’s an inter-governmental process driven by governments,” he says.
But he adds: “That said, the EU is a key partner and what will impact on the UK is the fact that the European Commission has sponsored projects and initiatives to help develop, reinforce and implement the Bologna Process.”
The roots of the Bologna Process lay with a declaration signed by the UK, France, Germany and Italy in 1998 at the Sorbonne setting out the framework.
John Reilly says that while it is hard to guess what the government’s position will be leading up to Brexit, “I would think they would not want to divorce themselves from the Bologna Process, because they were one of the key initiators”.
In his report for the British Council, he writes that “the UK has been at the forefront of the Bologna Process from the outset” and describes how the process led to the setting up of the European Higher Education Area in 2010, which aims to “encourage and facilitate Higher Education cooperation”.
Despite his overall optimism about Bologna, the academic warns that the UK might find it “hard to engage” in projects supported by the EC if it is outside the EU and does not enter in to a European Economic Area type agreement or become an associated member of the EU.
“The EC plays a role like a supporting government, to implement some of the international aspects of the process, by helping to support Bologna tools, for example –the European Credit Transfer System and Quality Assurance - but they are all owned by the Bologna Process and have been endorsed by Ministers from all the countries.”
Describing himself as “strongly Remain”, John Reilly says it is vital that action is taken to secure continued UK involvement in another international programme - the Erasmus + scheme - which promotes the international mobility of university students and staff.
His report says the UK government and the devolved nations have expressed how important it is to Britain’s future that students gain experience of studying abroad and that Erasmus “the largest student and staff mobility programme in the world” is “widely accepted as providing the basis and impetus for the Bologna Process”.
Mr Reilly, who is the former Director of the UK Socrates Erasmus Council, the Erasmus Mundus National structure and the UK Tempus Information office, told HEI-Know: “About 17,000 UK students are outwardly mobile through Erasmus and we send many more to Europe than we do to the rest of the world. The potential for increasing ‘global’ mobility is much more difficult in terms of costs, visas and academic recognition.
“Erasmus + has instituted a quality charter which is an entry requirement for a Higher Education Institution and gives mutual guarantees for partnerships. Assessment of applications for the Charter is managed by the EC which removes a burden form each institution. Global partnerships will require separate bilateral agreements which will increase the burden on HEIs.
“If the UK is excluded from Erasmus, this will have a huge impact on UK outward student mobility and create a serious challenge for UK institutions. Universities are preparing their prospectuses for students coming in 2018. In their current prospectuses they are advertising four-year programmes with one year in a European university supported with an Erasmus grant but for the future they cannot guarantee this; they do not know if the UK will be included in the programme.“
Mr Reilly says the UK is formally in Erasmus until the end of the current programme in 2021 and that his hope is that there will be protection for students in it, although this will depend on the outcome of negotiation with the EU.
“Continued membership of Erasmus +should be the primary objective, coupled with access to Horizon 2020 and the Marie Skowdolska Curie Programme,” he says.
“Individual students and academics have got to work to ensure there is no early termination; to work in the most positive way, demonstrating the value and benefit [of the scheme].”
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