Ollikainen Aaro

The Single Market for Education and National Educational Policy

This study has been largely descriptive and explorative in nature: the objective has been to describe the Europeanisation of national education policy thinking over the late 1980s and early 1990s. Europeanisation was defined as the impact of EU policies and more generally of European integration on national education policies, systems and discourses.

However, careful examination of the role of the EU in the national policy environment - and prior research on the rationales and outcomes of EU education programmes - renders possible at least a partial explanation of Europeanisation of education policy. The explanation below is also offered as a set of hypotheses intended for further use and testing. Moreover, some avenues for possible future developments can be envisaged.

In my view, Europeanisation of education policy is governed both by conditions external to education and by conditions concerning education policy.

1) Conditions external to education pertain to
  • the geopolitical and trade political history of the country in question,
  • the present macroeconomic and foreign political situation of the country
  • the integration strategy chosen for the future.

Here, a political climate favourable to integration and a Government strategy aiming at EU membership or intensifying cooperation with the EU facilitates educational cooperation, too.

In the case of Finland, EU funded educational cooperation - participation in which was coined as a development objective before EEA or EU memberships emerged as topics of discussion - was hailed as one way to rid Finland of certain historical burdens. It was hoped that increased visibility of Finnish education would enhance the external image of Finland as a modern knowledge-based information society in European circles.

Education programmes were the first EU policies opened to EFTA countries. Education was an existing area of cooperation, a "bridgehead" which paved the way for future integration.

Later, the development of European educational cooperation was encouraged by the efforts of the Government to achieve the EEA and EU memberships. Education was a politically unproblematic area for integration: EU measures do not explicitly aim at regulation of national systems and policies, but rather supplement them. Results from participation in the first EU programmes were encouraging both financially and otherwise. Especially over the 1990s, educational cooperation enjoyed an exceptionally consensual support. In the politically and economically turbulent run-up to full membership, increased educational cooperation was identified as one unquestionably positive result of European integration. Its underlying ideology of "opening a window of opportunity for young people" was keenly employed as an argument by proponents of integration in the early 1990s.


2) Conditions concerning education policy include

  • the perceived compatibility between the underlying logic of EU programmes and the national education policy,
  • the perceived compatibility between the practical formulation of EU programmes and the national education policy,
  • the perceived profitability of EU policies and
  • their novelty.

Here, Europeanisation proceeds in cases where both the objectives and the practicalities of the EU programmes fit in "the national education policy thinking", where they are deemed profitable and where no competing schemes exist.

One of the reasons behind the success of EU programmes in Finland resides in their objectives. Although there has been also criticism towards EU education policy its basic logic and most important objectives - promoting international cooperation, enhancing the quality of education and employability of graduates - also form the cornerstones of Finnish national education policy. Most objectives of EU programmes have corresponded to national ones, others have been re-interpreted to match them. As a result of this, there have been no profound ideological conflicts between the Finnish government and (the Directorate General XXII of) the European Commission. The state administration took the role of a facilitator, rather than a buffer, vis-à-vis EU education policy. Subsequently, the doctrine favouring optimal utilisation of EU programmes disseminated to the interest organisations and educational institutions.

Also the practical formulation of EU programmes has fitted well in Finnish education policy. The difficult macroeconomic situation of Finland was during the 1990s reflected in the educational sector as diminished state funding. At the same time, public policy has emphasised the accountability of educational institutions for their own performance and prosperity. The new situation has made external funding in general a virtue for educational institutions. The EU programmes, again, have provided the most obvious channels for funding.

Active participation of Finnish institutions in EU programmes has been perceived as profitable. The programmes include a degree of national and international competition. Financial appropriations from the Member States are fixed in the membership fees for EU, while "reimbursed" funds are based on successful applications. In Finland this resulted in a situation, in which getting a fair amount of projects accepted became almost a matter of national pride. This pattern of competition also has existed on the inter-institutional level. Educational institutions and their departments compete with each other for funding and prestige (also) through international activities. This was in Finland supported by government policies which have employed international cooperation as one indicator when rewarding institutions financially and granting operating licenses for polytechnics.

Finally, the EU programmes have included a certain novelty, since there originally were no comparable national programmes. Rather, the EU programmes were regarded as filling an existing void in the field of educational cooperation.

What could, then, happen in the future? Certain trends which will probably continue can be distinguished. Firstly, interest in EU programmes will probably prevail and spread to the new areas of non-professional, general education. The Socrates/Comenius programme for cooperation between schools has been perhaps the greatest success of EU education policy so far. Its relative weight will grow in the Socrates II programme, to be adopted for the years 2000-2006. Other growing areas include the use of information technology in learning and alternative educational pathways for adults lacking basic qualifications. However, the overall profile of most EU programmes will probably remain quite similar into the 21st century.

Secondly, as experiences on the actual outcomes of EU education programmes accumulate, the objectives of participation become more detailed and realistic. This may also in due time lead to diminishing interest in some of the programmes. The Community initiatives and structural funds offer greater funds and the share of educational projects in them seems to be increasing.

Thirdly, the EU organs themselves will give increasing attention to the outcomes of educational programmes. The dissemination and further utilisation of results attained in the programmes have so far been the Achilles heel of educational cooperation. As the European Commission ever more clearly aims at a system impact in the field of education, these aspects will grow in importance.

Finally, a new understanding seems to be emerging, according to which EU education programmes, directives on the recognition of qualifications, other EU sectoral policies and the integration process in general have far-reaching impacts on national education systems. There seems to be a certain shift from regarding education as a purely national matter to something which is partly governed by the new operating environment shaped on the European level.

An interesting stage in this discussion was reached in May 1998, when the Ministers of Education of four large EU countries - the UK, France, Germany and Italy - adopted the Sorbonne declaration on harmonisation of the architecture of the European higher education system. According to the declaration, higher education systems should be reformed to offer two kinds of degrees, a bachelor's level first degree, and a postgraduate degree which would be either a professionally oriented master's or a doctorate encompassing mainly scientific research. This would increase the transparency and compatibility of higher education systems and facilitate international mobility. In addition to this, the joint declaration called for more student exchange, better exploitation of EU programmes, and praised the contribution made to recognition of foreign studies by the ECTS system.

The Sorbonne declaration was followed by a second declaration, signed by the Ministers of Education of nearly all EU Member States, EEA states and the "associated countries" in Bologna in June 1999. The signatories of the Bologna declaration affirmed their support to the general principles of the Sorbonne declaration. They also expressed a commitment to coordinate national education policies so as to adopt a system of comparable degrees, employ a system of credit units, and promote mobility, cooperation in quality assurance and a European dimension in higher education.

The Bologna declaration opens with a statement on European integration and its significance from the point of view of higher education, but does not describe EU education policy in more detail. However, many of the expressed objectives are in line with those of EU education programmes. The concept of European higher education area itself has been consistently promoted by EU: European educational cooperation which obviously played a part in inspiring the declaration.

Not surprisingly, the Bologna/Sorbonne process has evoked a lot of discussion, rich in both critical and supportive comments. In Finland, there seems to be some gradual acceptance of the idea that international cooperation encourages voluntary convergence or approximation of national systems. The EU is but one factor contributing to this process.

This does not entail that the Member States would give up their educational sovereignty altogether. Moreover, a common education policy would hardly be feasible for all the countries belonging to or aiming at accession in the EU. The education system of Sweden could hardly be governed by a similar policy than that of Slovenia. The same kind of educational legislation would not work Belgium and Bulgaria. For the foreseeable future, the EU can not impose a common education policy on the European states. Rather, it will continue to develop an education policy based on a range of incentive measures, and in this way contribute to the creation of a Single Market for education.

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