Across Europe, more than 5,000 higher education institutions are at the forefront of efforts to improve our world – whether with high-profile successes, such as cutting-edge research into COVID-19, or more personal ones, such as enabling an ‘adult’ learner – Giuseppe Paternò from Sicily –  to grad­uate this year at the age of 96.

Higher education transforms lives but it must also transform, to continue its contribution to shaping a better future for Europe.

To initiate this transformation, yesterday I launched a consultation process on a higher education transformation agenda at the European Education Summit. This will consist of an online public consultation to be launched early next year as well as several months of targeted consultations of the higher education and research communities. Students will be fully involved in this process.

The year 2020 has been no ordinary time for students and higher education institutions. They have been left with no choice but to transform: the impact of the COVID-19 crisis meant that, almost overnight, universities across Europe had to switch to online learning. We saw great determination to make this work by those involved: students, researchers, academics and administrators.

We also saw challenges. The crisis exposed inequalities in our societies and,  particularly, a digital divide. Disadvantaged students did not get the support they needed while people financially dependent on working through their studies lost the work that enabled them to do so.

Academics also struggled, with many delivering education online without proper preparation and training. Many higher education institutions did not have adequate infrastructure or capacity at the beginning of the crisis for the switch to online learning.

The transformation of the higher education sector was indeed accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and, now, must continue at pace. The sector needs to attract and support a more diverse student population. It needs to provide more flexible, student-centred learning, including online learning. It needs to include challenge-based and interdisciplinary learning to focus on real-world challenges as well as more international cooperation and competition leading to increased mobility.

The crisis exposed inequalities in our societies and, particularly, a digital divide- Mariya Gabriel

Transformation in the research and innovation sector of higher education institutions will also occur by making research careers more attractive and ensuring equal opportunities, by reinforcing cooperation with other sectors in the locality and by strengthening knowledge transfer.

To accelerate the transformation of the higher education sector, Europe is putting its collective knowledge to work. This autumn, the commission adopted a number of proposals with knowledge at the forefront. In achieving a European education area by 2025, we will ensure high quality and inclusive education accessible to all, while working towards a successful transition to a green and digital economy.

The digital education action plan will support the use of technology in education and the development of digital competences. The European research area will allow Europe to reach its ambitious research and innovation objectives through cooperating across borders.

Over the coming year, we will work with the higher education and research communities to co-create a higher education transformation agenda. Our aim is to empower the higher education sector to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future by taking an approach that encompasses education, research, innovation and service to society while fully respecting the diversity of the sector. Based on consultations to date, we envisage that the agenda could focus on strengthening inclusion and excellence, digital and green transition, cooperation, innovation and international competitiveness.

In developing it, we will be taking inspiration from the 41 European universities, consisting of over 280 higher education institutions and supported by European education and research funds. They are revolutionising higher education and research.

The public consultation on a higher education transformation agenda will be open to all.

I have outlined some of the changes we believe are needed but I encourage everyone who has an interest to give their views on their vision for the future of the sector. I look forward to engaging with people across Europe over the coming year as we transform the world of higher education.

Mariya Gabriel is European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth.

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