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Higher education in the EU

Education policy is a policy area in which decision-making lies firmly with the individual EU Member States (under the principle of subsidiarity). The EU merely has a coordination and support role, albeit an extremely important one. Thus despite subsidiarity, higher education policy has become a specific focus within European policy-making.

The EU and therefore also the EU Member States take measures aimed at promoting studying, teaching and researching across borders. The coordinated collaboration required to implement these measures successfully and sustainably will ultimately also bring a better quality of higher education in Europe.

Europe 2020 Strategy

The Europe 2020 strategy is the European Union’s means of achieving the overarching priority of ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’. Progress on the Europe 2020 strategy is measured against targets in five key areas. Thus by 2020 the proportion of 30- to 34-year-olds who have completed tertiary or equivalent education should reach at least 40 percent. Austria reached its national target of 38 percent as early as 2012 (38.3 percent). In 2017 Austria even managed to exceed the key European target, with 40.8 percent.
The strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET 2020) sets out all the strategic objectives for European cooperation on education:

  1. Make lifelong learning and mobility a reality
  2. Improve the quality and efficiency of education and training
  3. Promote equity, social cohesion and active citizenship
  4. Enhance creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training.

The ET 2020 came into force in 2010, and a mid-term review was performed in 2015. This confirmed that the strategic framework had survived, but – despite clear progress being made – many challenges remained. These formed the basis for new priority areas.
In the European Commission’s contribution to the social summit in Gothenburg in November 2017 entitled Strengthening European Identity through Education and Culture, it set out its thinking about the contribution which education and culture could make to building inclusive societies and maintaining competitiveness. It presented a series of concrete initiatives for developing a European Education Area .

Following this, in the European Council Conclusions dated 14 December 2017 the Member States strengthened their resolve to engage more with education and culture. The priority initiatives in the higher education sector are:

  • Stepping up mobility and exchanges, including through a substantially strengthened, inclusive and extended Erasmus+ programme;
  • Strengthening strategic partnerships between higher education institutions across the EU and encouraging the emergence by 2024 of some twenty 'European Universities', consisting in bottom-up networks of universities across the EU which will enable students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and contribute to the international competitiveness of European universities;
  • Promoting student mobility and participation in educational and cultural activities, including through a 'European Student Card';
  • Promoting cooperation of Member States on mutual recognition of higher education and school leaving diplomas at secondary education level in the appropriate framework.

During its Presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2018, Austria achieved expansion and increased flexibility for the new generation of Erasmus+ compared to the previous programme.
Brexit, the forthcoming exit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union, has unsettled the European higher education sector insofar as its consequences are still hard to determine. It goes without saying that higher education in all EU countries will be affected.



Manuela Fried
Department IV/11 - European Higher Education Area, Erasmus+ for Higher Education, Bologna Process and Mobility
Minoritenplatz 5, 1010 Vienna
T +43 53120 7866