In 2021 the Professional Higher Education (PHE) institutions are going to have the chance to benefit from an exceptional amount of European funds, while helping to shape the future of Europe in the framework of the forthcoming homonymous Conference.
The history of Europe exemplifies how crises catalyse changes and move ahead the integration process. The financial crisis of 2008 was instrumental to strengthen the European economic governance with the creation of the European semester. The current COVID-19 pandemic with the resulting devasting social and economic effects will not be an exception. In fact, it has already led to unpreceded, historical decisions, namely, the agreement on a robust EU-budget, coupled with an extraordinary Recovery plan – the Next Generation EU, that amounts for more than 1800 billion € for the period 2021-2027.
While being particularly relevant and promising from a political point of view, the decision to allocate such an amount of financial resources to the post-COVID recovery of Europe doesn’t constitute a guarantee of success. In fact, the key of this success relies largely upon the implementation phase, in particular, the capacity of all stakeholders to properly execute the committed budget, especially, in the course of the next two years. In order to illustrate the significance of this challenge, it would be worth recalling that under the new Multiannual-financial framework, all relevant sectoral programmes, such as Erasmus +, Horizon Europe and the Cohesion policy’s funds, have been beefed-up. In addition, those countries and regions that did not execute the corresponding Regional and Investment funds for the period 2014-2020 (in certain cases more than 50 %), will be allowed to do so until the end of 2023. Moreover, the implementation of the national Recovery and resilience Plans that Member States have to present by the end of April, will also be concentrated in the period 2021-2022 (70 % of the grant allocations).
With this in mind, PHE institutions become decisive stakeholders, as they present a set of important advantages in comparison with other educational institutions, namely, their strong regional engagement and knowledge of the specific needs and strengths of each region, and their capacity to interact with a wide range of stakeholders, especially SMEs, and to inspire and steer challenges-driven local and regional development. PHE institutions are called to do much and better than in the past, as the current circumstances are exceptional. This requires a comprehensive and more strategic approach to the alignment and synergies between different financial sources, based on the successful experience with the smart specialisation strategies. This also requires a more proactive and “entrepreneurial” approach and support to the corresponding local, regional and national competent authorities (80 % of the EU budget is implemented by Member states), as there is a fear that, in certain cases, these administrations lack the necessary knowledge and capacities to deal with the budgetary execution.
Having been postponed several times due to the on-going pandemic, the Conference on the Future of Europe has got a green light from the European institutions and is expected to be officially launched on 9 of May. This Conference will be a bottom-up exercise, steered jointly by the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission, the purpose of which is to debate on how to better address the numerous challenges the EU is facing, with a particular attention to several key issues, such as sustainable and inclusive growth, societal challenges, including territorial and educational divides and inequalities, innovation and competitiveness, including future skills.
This Conference brings a unique opportunity for PHE institutions to make their voice stronger in Europe. In my view, the objective is twofold: on one side, reflect on the future of the European education, and not the least PHE, not only in terms of content (e.g. Shall we merge the European Education Area with the European Research Area?, What links with other sectorial policies namely those intended to stimulate employability?, etc) but also in terms of competences (e.g. Who does what in the European education landscape? What can be done beyond the existing open method of coordination?), although it is unlikely that the outcome of the Conference, excepted in 2022, leads to amendments of the Treaties in a short term; on the other side, better acknowledge and further reinforce the role of the European educational institutions as vehicles for promoting and strengthening the European identity based on our fundamental values, rights and freedoms.
Iskren Kirilov, Director for International affairs of Foundation Saint Paul CEU Andalusia