2018 EHEA participants
25 May 2018

€100m for European universities over 10 years

The Prime Minister addressed the European Higher Education Area Ministerial Conference, which was held on 24 May in Paris. For Édouard Philippe, the synergies between higher education, research and innovation need to be enhanced to ensure that the Europe of knowledge remains a common ambition and good. This is because "the battle of intelligence, which has always been essential, has now become urgent," he said.

Keynote speech by Édouard Philippe

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Distinguished Ministers,

Honourable Madam Director-General,

Honourable Mr Commissioner.     


The history of thought has never been confined within national borders. As far back as the Middle Ages, when the borders of France and Europe were very different from those we know today, and did not even have the same purpose as the one we attribute them today, when the very idea of Nation in Europe had not really taken hold, a handful of European institutions had an outreach that extended continent-wide. It was the universities which, from the outset, saw themselves as cosmopolitan. Academic peregrinations were spoken of, since students going by such famous names as Marsilius of Padua or Meister Eckhart for example travelled and met up, from Bologna to Oxford.

European integration and, in some respects, European civilisation, arose out of these human, artistic and intellectual exchanges which are currently shaping and have forged the shared culture we enjoy today. This European culture is that of DESCARTES, the philosopher who, it is sometimes said, is the embodiment of the national spirit, through what is known as Cartesianism – on which all of us here know that he wrote and published "The Discourse on the Method" in the Netherlands.

It is that of the naturalists BUFFON and CUVIER, who kept up regular correspondence with their European counterparts to be able to exchange, by post, packets of seeds and sketches which completely changed the face of natural history and agronomy.

This European culture, it is that of Marie CURIE and Lise MEITNER, a Polish woman living in Paris and an Austrian woman based in Cambridge respectively, both brilliant physicists after whom various prestigious research grants and institutes have been named.

Today, it is that of researchers and academics who are committed daily to building a humanistic Europe of knowledge. It is therefore a delight to celebrate here – if somewhat ironic I might add, with a touch of humour, here of all places, in a palace that was long home to the Bourse des valeurs, the French Stock Exchange if you like – to welcome so many delegates for the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Sorbonne Conference for the Europe of knowledge and mobility.

Here, on 25 May 1998, German, Italian, British and French ministers for higher education declared their ambition to build a Europe of knowledge, at once more appealing and structured, and relying on a powerful driver: that of mobility. Several months after this Sorbonne Declaration, 29 European ministers met in Bologna, at the oldest university in the Western world, to sign the Bologna Declaration, which laid the building blocks for a European Higher Education Area.

"At a time when nationalistic attitudes are sowing doubt, distrust and concern, the presence of 70 ministers of higher education is proof that the momentum set in motion in Bologna is looked to as a beacon by nations all over the world, Africa, Latin America and Asia. Such a turnout shows that there is collective resolve to keep this momentum going, and I applaud the wholehearted mobilisation of all higher education stakeholders – from the students to academic staff. Together, by constantly linking up the national and international levels, we need to drive ever forward the synergies between higher education, research and innovation, to ensure that the Europe of knowledge remains a common ambition and good."

Allow me to begin with an example, that of the French university system. I hope you will forgive my boldness, in starting, somewhat inappropriately, by talking about oneself before an audience harking from almost all four corners of the globe. But I would like to share with you the purpose of the reform we have recently initiated in France, under the leadership of our Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation. For I believe it is in fully in keeping with the Bologna Process.

Why was the Government intent on overhauling, so completely and utterly, access to higher education? The conditions bearing on the reception of students, assignment of places and organisation of the first higher education cycle? Because France's university admissions system was in danger of foundering. Because it was being undermined by an essentially longstanding observation – which had perhaps always been dismissed, or which we have had no wish to address head-on – that organising selection, or more exactly access to higher education, in France was a strange mix of hyper-selection, glaring and cruel failures and random drawing of lots.

Some courses were highly selective, while others were organised in such a way that nearly 60% of students enrolling in an undergraduate course were failing, sometimes within a very short space of time, after one semester; they dropped out of university and no longer attended classes – realising that there were no opportunities to succeed or develop personally even, in the course they had signed up for. They were not afforded the very best conditions for being able to achieve what every student hopes to get out of higher education: access to knowledge, to research; a certain satisfaction of an intellectual curiosity; the means to develop and empower themselves intellectually.

We wanted to change tack. We wanted to enact a systemic shift, and we wanted to abolish the absurd drawing of lots which led to some being assigned to a particular course, while others – who could have been better prepared, whose personal and intellectual experience or subject choices thus far could have predestined them for this course – found themselves excluded by the brutal effect, fundamentally at odds with the principle of merit, of the random drawing of lots.

We wanted to call time on this way of proceeding, and this is why we have set up a support and guidance system for students. This is why we have set up a system where the entry requirements for undergraduate courses are clearly stated, so that students know what is expected if they are to have an opportunity to succeed, and which, when students so request – if they do not have everything it takes to succeed but are motivated to take a particular course – can be adapted accordingly to pave the way for them to maximise their chances of success.

The bottom line is that we want the higher education system to be capable of being straight with students, and of adapting to students, rather than a system where students are kept in the dark and where, often, the confirmation that it is incapable of adapting to them comes through failure.

This is what the far-reaching reform currently under way in France is setting out to achieve, and I would like to say that, in this bid to support students in the 130,000 course possibilities open to them to date, to develop personalised learning paths so that students can succeed in their undergraduate studies, I see something of the Bologna principles; this is why I wish to give my full encouragement and support to the Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, and express my full confidence in the roll-out of this substantial reform.

This Bologna Process, these principles, beyond the example I have just given of France, what can we take away from it, twenty years later? First, its appeal. It concerns more than 4,000 higher education institutions and nearly 38 million students across 48 countries. And beyond this scope, its benefits can be felt all over the world. It has become a benchmark in terms of organising and structuring higher education. But this was by no means a foregone conclusion. Given the diverse and widely different university systems between countries, and the legitimate store that each country may set by the originality of their own university system – the challenge was a significant one.

It was therefore necessary to establish a process that was at once flexible and voluntary, intergovernmental and participatory, and above all one that was firmly in step with the times. What this means is that the 48 countries and the European Commission, who are members of the Bologna Process, are not bound by an international treaty. It might, instead, be termed "soft law", to use that well-known French expression, as this declaration does not have any legally binding force or come with any restrictions or penalties.

The underlying values of the Bologna Process are confidence from the outset and mutual understanding, as well as voluntary involvement of the stakeholders, with each country keeping its own identity and higher education system, all the while setting in motion reforms at a pace that suits them. In France for example, our participation in the Bologna Process has dramatically changed the university system, the most recent developments of which I have just mentioned.

This soft law provides an interesting example, and a quite encouraging one at that if I may say so, of European cooperation. I would even say a necessary example, at a time when a great many of our fellow citizens are calling for a less prescriptive, less technocratic Europe, and instead a Europe that is more participatory and more organised around the idea of finding solutions rather than around the tendency to lay down rules.

Of course, we need to ask ourselves how this momentum can be maintained to continue upholding the Bologna Process over the long-term. The commitment initially made for a decade, until 2010, was renewed for another decade with a view to shoring up the European Higher Education Area. This will be one of the challenges between now and the next conference in 2020: giving fresh meaning, giving fresh impetus to integration of this European Higher Education Area, and enhancing ties with university communities.

Tremendous progress has been made over the past twenty years. Everyone is familiar with the new three-cycle architecture – Bachelor, Master, Doctorate – and everyone is familiar with ECTS credits, which are another kind of common currency in some ways, a currency associated with higher education. The transparency and comparison of qualifications have improved, which obviously facilitates their international recognition, and the appeal, transparency and gradual convergence of university systems are the keys to the mobility of academic staff and students.

A word on the Erasmus programme; nearly 4.5 million students have been able to benefit from this since its inception, which has given rise to Erasmus generations, the oldest among whom, myself included, feel a touch of nostalgia upon looking back at the programme, I must admit.

But ambition is still strong, and we need to be looking ahead. In his speech at the Sorbonne, the President of the Republic voiced the ambition in France that half of all students in a given age group should have spent at least six months in another European country by the time they are 25. More generally, France would like to see European policies for higher education, research and culture coming centre-stage in EU action, for what binds Europe together has always been, and in my view will always be, shared knowledge.

Another humanistic and political line of thinking has also gained renewed currency in the Bologna Process, that of the Council of Europe which, in 1949, advocated for a Europe of culture and intelligence to protect peace and to guard against the return of barbarity. The Magna Charta Universitatum also chimes with this line of thinking, signed by the rectors and heads of several hundred universities on the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna. This charter particularly underscores the academic freedom and autonomy of universities. Developing and honing students' critical thinking are still paramount if we are to combat the ignorance that fosters disinformation and violence.

For we need to continue building the European Higher Education Area that will play a part in creating a new European form of humanism – indeed, this will even be dependent on the former in some respects. This European Higher Education Area must engage in dialogue and cooperate with the rest of the world. To that end, the Bologna Policy Forum will, tomorrow, spark what I hope will be constructive talks between the European ministers and fifteen or so non-European countries attending this year.

We need to go further still in our efforts concerning university jargon which, like all types of jargon, is fairly largely indecipherable to anyone who is not an academic, and I cannot encourage enough the very many academics here today to think about the non-academics, of whom there are even more, and who sometimes struggle to make sense of academic jargon. In short, we need to further enhance the interoperability of national systems, i.e. the possibility of moving from one European university to another.

This involves extending mobility to those students and academic staff members who are currently excluded, and deepening cooperation through exchanges of best practice – not least in terms of digital technology and of digitising procedures – and through joint programmes.

We need to develop flexible and innovative courses that factor in the diversity of students. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot be overlooked when they meet the entry requirements for a particular undergraduate course. Finally, I am calling for the links between research, education and innovation to become systematic – not least in such cutting-edge fields as artificial intelligence. These links form the backbone of our culture, the bedrock of our economic competitiveness and the foundations of our future sovereignty.

In his speech at the Sorbonne last September, the President of the Republic Emmanuel MACRON shared his belief that we should create European universities for the very purposes of championing these ambitions. This would involve setting up European networks of universities comprising four to six institutions across at least three Member States. Such networks would bring public- and private-sector partners on board to develop competitive ranges of courses at international level. The European Commission took up this idea and drew up a call for proposals, due to be published in October 2018 as part of the Erasmus Plus programme.

"Two days ago, the Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation pledged that France would financially contribute up to €100m over 10 years to the development of these European universities, as part of its Investments for the Future programme."

Ladies and Gentlemen, I was born in 1970 and did my A levels in Bonn, Germany, in 1988. The world was different back then: there were two Germanies, and there was an Iron Curtain that divided Europe in two. Many of us here today lived through this period on both sides of this tragic Iron Curtain. Others of you, in fact a very large number of you judging by how young most of the audience is here today, did not experience it. The world has changed beyond all recognition.

At the time I was doing my A levels in Germany, at the time I was beginning my higher education in France, only a tiny minority of French students had the possibility, as part of their course, of completing a year's higher education in another European country. Only a tiny minority managed to build bridges with other higher education institutions in Europe, often owing to their own determination, sometimes through their connections or thanks to higher education programmes that were light years ahead of their time.

Fast-forward to today, and the world and the world of higher education are completely different. For those getting involved in higher education today, travel abroad, accomplishing part of one's studies abroad has become, if not the norm, then at least simple, easy, accessible, natural and sought-after.

This is an incredibly valuable global shift that has taken place, and it is something we should be incredibly proud of and grateful for on the part of those who initiated it, made it possible and aided it. But this is only the beginning. We need to do significantly better, and significantly more. We need to win the battle of intelligence together, for, given the threats looming over us, whether because of limited resources, geostrategic imbalances, mounting tensions or populist attitudes, the battle of intelligence, which has always been essential, has now become urgent, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Time is of the essence, and all of our efforts to ensure that education, and higher education in particular, more effectively addresses the challenges of today's world, has ever higher expectations of the world we are currently living in, everything that we are able to do to disseminate intelligence and cultivate it together, will go towards tackling the world's challenges. I don't know if the Bologna momentum will save the world, but I am certain that the world would be lost were we not to drive forward these efforts and the Bologna momentum. Thank you.