Overview of EU Higher Education Policy

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EU activities are designed to bring an additional international dimension to studying, teaching, researching and making policy in higher education.

Competences in education cooperation lie predominantly with the EU Member States. However, the European Union can support, coordinate and enhance the actions of the Member States.

The Community shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity.

Maastricht Treaty of 1992

Among the most important objectives of Union action in higher education are:

  • Encouraging mobility of students and teachers;
  • Supporting the academic recognition of diplomas and periods of study;
  • Developing exchanges of information and experience on issues common to the education systems of Member States;
  • Promoting cooperation between educational establishments;
  • Fact Sheets on the European Union;
  • Encouraging the development of distance education.

In 2009, the European Council adopted the strategy Europe 2020. Among the key targets is a considerable increase in the number of young people completing third-level education (at least 40% of 30-34 year-olds by 2020).

Furthermore, the strategic framework Education & Training 2020 (ET 2020) set the target that at least 20% of higher education graduates should have spent some time studying or training abroad by 2020.

Further important documents of the Union’s strategic alignment in higher education are:

  • The Commission’s communication of November 2017 Strengthening European Identity through Education and Culture with the demand to create a European education area.
  • The Commission’s renewed EU Agenda for Higher Education of May 2017, which deals with the following four key areas:
    1. Tackling future skills mismatches and promoting excellence in skills development;
    2. Building inclusive and connected higher education systems;
    3. Ensuring higher education institutions contribute to innovation;
    4. Supporting effective and efficient higher education systems.

The most important tool of the EU to achieve its strategic goals in higher education is the programme Erasmus+, which runs until December 2020.

With the communication Strengthening European Identity through Education and Culture in the context of the Social Summit in Gothenburg on 17 November 2017, the European Commission has outlined its vision of a European Education Area by 2025 and the concrete steps towards it.

As per the Commission, the European Education Area includes the following initiatives:

The basis of the European research and innovation policy consists of the EU treaty articles 179-190, covering research, technological development and aerospace. Its objectives are to secure Europe’s economic and technological competitiveness and to tackle global challenges.

By supporting exchange and cooperation between the national research systems, the EU also aims at creating a common and productive European research area, which enables European researches to work anywhere in EU, and which is open and attractive to international talents.

The main tool for the implementation of this policy is the seven-year European Research Framework Programme. The currently 8th programme Horizon 2020 runs until December 2020.

Bologna Process

The Bologna-Declaration of 1999 is the main guiding document for the work towards more comparable, compatible and coherent systems of higher education in Europe, culminating in the creation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) with the Budapest-Vienna Ministerial Conference Declaration of March 2010. By now, the EHEA encompasses 48 member states from Iceland to Kazakhstan. In addition to the Member States’ own political initiatives, the EU actively supports the priorities of Bologna.


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