Everybody knows we’re living in difficult times. Most people accept a need for some form of austerity as we work through the crisis, but there are disagreements about the scale and range of the cuts. If we cut too fast or too hard, will we hurt the economic recovery we’re trying to encourage? The European Students’ Union has sent us a comment. They worry that slashing education budgets is a short-sighted strategy that will harm us in the end:
Tuition fees are going up majorly, creating wider gaps in education levels between the countries. This is not only threatening to the European identity and the feeling of European citizenship, but it is also causing major problems in the longer term… The EU should really urge member states to invest more and better in higher education and to unite in making sustainable plans for the future of higher education.
We asked Riccardo Perissich, the Former Director General for Industry in the European Commission, to comment. He agreed in principle, but questioned whether the idea would work in practice:
I think they’re right – all governments will be called to approve austerity measures, which will imply cutting expenditure, but I think it would be a catastrophic mistake to cut budgets for higher education. Whether the EU can make a difference, since this is a national point of competency, I’m not sure.
However, rather than giving up and leaving the issue to national governments, Mr. Perissich suggested the situation should be changed to encourage greater EU involvement in the field of education.
It would be useful, at the European level, to select a small number of sites of excellency and to handle them as, so-to-speak, federal institutions like in Switzerland. As you know, education in Switzerland in carried out at the level of the canton. However, there are certain institutions that are run by the federal government. I think this might be an interesting model for the EU – the development of “centres of excellence” in research. They do exist in Europe, but they are insufficiently connected, fragmented and, again, too national. Is it utopian to propose that some of them should be considered “federal institutions” as it is the case for the Zurich Polytechnic?
Finally, he suggested one other way in which the EU could play a bigger role in education:
My suggestion is that Erasmus, one of the biggest European successes, is made genaral and, if possible compulsory.
Compulsory military service is common in many countries, why not compulsory study in another European country? Or is this taking European integration too far? We’ll take Mr Perissich’s idea to the European Students’ Union to see if they have any feedback.