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Continuing Higher Education in Europe: The Reality

Given the amount of funding European governments invest in higher education, the ability for continuing education units to expedite returns on taxpayer investments serve only to enhance the reputation of continuing and professional education. Photo by Comugnero Silvana.

While the elevation of continuing education in Europe may seem uplifting (see my last article for more detail), one might fairly ask if continuing education capabilities are all that new to the functioning of universities. Language can be misleading, especially when translating not just words but across cultures. In the German (among other continental European) systems of education, faculties of general and highly specialized engineering education as well as of business education had historically not been found in “universities,” but rather in self-standing schools and institutes that were designed with reciprocally supportive ties with various industry sectors. In some countries, these higher education institutions (HEIs) were/are formally under the sponsorship of government ministries (like transportation) or state utilities and related industries (like telecommunications or power): for example, schools for information technology or electrical or nuclear engineering.

These close relationships help secure employment for successful graduates with their sponsors at the conclusion of their studies. In France (home to the grandes écoles), such HEI’s were funded and continue to be funded very differently from the universities. Of course today, even as governments initiate reforms and establish new categories of institutions, some of the historic distinctions in nomenclature have become less conspicuous. In recent years many of the Hochschulen and Fachhochschulen of Germany along with their counterparts across Central Europe and the Balkans along with the (former) Polytechnics of the U.K. have officially abandoned their old identities to become universities too.

These institutions have all brought their own relatively more developed traditions of forms of continuing education: custom programs for industry clients, access (like that of the traditional German universities) through open enrollment structures for qualified professionals to enroll in courses in their standing curricula. Now many are developing forms of executive education (often in English) to serve a European-wide clientele—following the longstanding examples of U.K. (and Dutch) business and engineering schools which have been active in globally-marketed Executive Education for a long time.

Speaking of the U.K. (where budget cutting and multiple higher education reforms are nothing new) national support has waned since the Thatcher era and ever-more complicated funding formulas have been introduced by successive governments over three decades. The results have produced a dynamic and some would say especially competitive and creative environment… for everything. The U.K. has led Europe in allowing fees for post-secondary study to rise, and welcoming the growth of private institutions. One byproduct is that, similar to the U.S., loan indebtedness by students is becoming a significant political issue. In Britain, the problem is exacerbated by declining employment opportunities for new graduates and high rates of youth unemployment in general.

Even among those HEI’s where there is no significant history of structured programs of continuing education or operational capacity, there is genuine support to creating the mandated new capabilities—especially because they are required to do so by law. It would, however, be naïve to imagine that there are no obstacles to implementation, not the least being entrenched institutional faculty cultures and the incontestably shifting priorities shaped by the budgetary crises being experienced across the EU with highly variable degrees of severity. Moreover, Britain is hardly alone among member states to have been advancing higher education reforms for many years before the especially difficult current economic climate took hold. Considering changing demographics, an ageing workforce, the impact of international competition for academic talent (for faculty as well as students), preoccupations about unemployment among recent graduates, and the realities of finite resources; governments have introduced differential tuition schemes (or introduced tuition for the first time) and have restructured their higher educational systems to strengthen research capacities at some or industry ties at others, and to mandate multiple kinds of learning outcomes appropriate to each institutional typology.

Germany, with the largest and ostensibly the soundest European economy, provides an illuminating example of one approach. Most traditional universities and their faculties had never been involved in continuing education, except making access to existing course offerings available to their alumni and degree-holders of other German universities (despite the fact that individual faculty members regularly moonlight as consultants to industry for on-site and contract training).[1] That is why it is noteworthy that recent German reform legislation particularly intent on strengthening the research capacities and international standing of select universities has explicitly included directives to create continuing professional education capacities as a vehicle for achieving those objectives. Germany has also introduced new tiered groupings of institutions with rankings linked to competition for government resources; these are allocated based on a number of factors, prizing evidence of research productivity, a measure of which is evidence of accelerating familiarity with university-developed discoveries and their subsequent adaptive use by German’s highly sophisticated manufacturing and biotech industries. While specialized new degrees, online courses, and targeted curricula for knowledge workers are certainly finding their way in German CE portfolios, that particular research-to-the marketplace goal is noteworthy—and familiar. It is a foundational element in the well-established North American (and British) model of post-graduate engineering short courses, which have an illustrious record of stimulating knowledge transfer by introducing active professionals to university-based discoveries, and thereby foster their commercial exploitation. There may even be expectations shaped by another well-regarded model which originated within a U.S. continuing education enterprise, namely the renowned UCSD Connect program, with its remarkable record of linking researchers with entrepreneurs.

Whatever the sources and whatever the particular objectives, there appears to be a circle of virtue underlying the German concept. In a society where the government funds higher education, such CE-enhanced outcomes are ways to expedite return on taxpayer investment. By assisting universities to strengthen the performance of national (and European) industries; their eventual success will in turn generate increased profits, and both healthy tax revenue and industry backing for the government’s reinvestment in higher education. Continuing Education thus is the enabling mechanism to help “pay it forward,” a nice moral imperative for the 21st Century.

These brief overviews are meant to stimulate awareness that continuing higher education and lifelong learning capacities will be growing throughout Europe’s higher educational institutions. Their development will inevitably be conditioned by variable national economic and cultural contexts, some of them more favorable than others, and some more or less likely to produce structures and approaches analogous to North American experience. A major factor in their evolution is that universities are being required to diversify their sources of revenue, and will have to get used to inevitable declines in the heretofore massive proportions of their budgets underwritten by their governments.[2] Concomitantly, with possible rare privileged exceptions like Sweden, it is irrational to imagine that university-level study across the Continent will remain very inexpensive or virtually free for all of its citizens, as it has been for centuries. The British may have already grown accustomed to an abundance of fee-dependent institutions and programs of higher learning in their midst, including foreign-owned for-profit educational enterprises: one can safely predict that their experience will become more commonplace across Europe.

In this light, now for a splash of more cold water: None of us would be surprised to learn that fully 60% of the respondents in a survey conducted in the context of the European-wide EUDIS project—European Universities Diversifying Income Streams—affirmed their expectation that continuing education and lifelong learning activities would contribute new funding sources.[3] To many of us, it might be both a surprise and proof of cultural difference that fully 40% did not have that expectation. With the view that CE can be a cash cow at a time of budgetary retrenchment, one outcome of the new mandates and increasing needs might be an explosive growth of CE and executive education everywhere, adding to the saturation of offerings in the European and global marketplace.

This said, precisely because the belief that continuing education should constitute an expanding revenue source is nothing new to our ears, perhaps what we should listen to most intently is what is different in European discourse: the documented understanding among policy makers that providing learning opportunities for adults throughout their active lifespan is central to the vitality of each nation’s capacity to thrive in the knowledge economy, and thus an inherently ever-more essential function of universities in society.

For continuing educators everywhere, even as we shoulder the evergreen expectation to be entrepreneurial and profitable, it is invigorating to do so with this powerful validation of our educational mission and the attendant official recognition of the importance of our efforts, not just for the bottom line, but for the general and the individual good.

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Notes and References

[1] In the former East Germany, many institutions had evening and weekend degree programs for workers—but as these were not authorized in the West German legislation governing university organization, the process of German unification required the dissolution of these Arbeiteruniversitäten for the adult learner in the early 1990’s!

[2] France, which had long neglected its institutions of higher education, is an interesting exception: it is the lone large European nation to be increasing its investment in higher education in the present climate.

[3] Cf: Thomas Estermann. European Universities Diversifying Income Streams. European University Association-EUDIS Seminar. Madrid. 2009.