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Higher Education Series


Introduction and context

The background for the Recommendation on the Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research are the rapid changes in European higher education and – in a larger sense – of European society over the past generation. These changes include:

· a massive expansion of student numbers as well as of the number of institutions, and hence increased opportunities for learners;
· a diversification of higher education institutions, where the classical university has been complemented by many other kinds of higher education institutions, most of them with a specific mission in preparing learners for the labour market;
· a diversification of higher education provision through first, the emergence of a high number of private higher education institutions, and second, the emergence of providers of higher education through non-traditional means, including those that cannot be linked to a specific higher education system;
· an increasing concern with the quality of much higher education provision, and hence an increased need for adequate quality assurance to help learners make informed choices;
· the increased economic importance of higher education and research in modern societies;
· the increased economic stakes in higher education and research for individuals as well as for society;
· the importance of higher education and research in developing and maintaining the democratic culture without which democratic institutions and democratic legislation cannot function;
· the increased internationalisation of higher education, as manifested by the widespread international cooperation between higher education and research institutions, by the development of the Bologna Process aiming to establish a European Higher Education Area by 2010 and developments concerning the European Research Area as well as by the inclusion of higher education in the GATS1 negotiations;
· in a broader context, increasing demands on public funds and public attention from a very wide group of actors in a wide variety of contexts, ultimately leading to a redefinition of the role and priorities of public authorities in modern, complex societies;
· linked to this development are increased demands on public authorities in terms of services and performance, without any accompanying willingness on the part of the public to pay for improved and extended services, at least not through traditional means of funding public budgets, such as taxation.
· the knowledge based economy – and indeed society – gives fewer and fewer opportunities for those without adequate qualifications, and that, increasingly means specialised qualifications at the secondary level or – even more often – the tertiary level. There is an increasing danger of enlarging the gap between those who hold adequate qualifications and those who do not, and this gap would tend to extend also to the ability to make use of lifelong learning opportunities.

The public responsibility for higher education and research is a key feature of the European tradition, as was underlined by the Ministers responsible for higher education meeting, in the framework of the Bologna Process, in Prague in 2001:

and in Berlin in 2003:

While these statements on higher education as a public good and a public responsibility are of great political value and importance, they do, however, give rise to a number of questions. One is to what extent higher education can actually be considered a public good, given the original, established economic sense of the term. Higher education is also clearly not a purely private good, and while a discussion of where on the continuum between a purely private and a purely public good higher education should be situated may be rewarding intellectually, it is of limited operational value.

The operational, and hence politically significant, debates are rather, what the public responsibility for higher education and research is in modern, complex societies, and how it may continue to be an integral part of European policies in future decades. In this sense, the Prague and Berlin statements on higher education as a public good and a public responsibility may perhaps be read as an expression of concern rather than as a statement of the obvious.

Higher education has remained a key feature of the heritage of Europe through several centuries because universities and other higher education and research institutions have been able to adapt their organisational structure and their working methods while remaining true to their core mission of education, research and public service. The adaptation of higher education to changing circumstances and the development of society has been explored in an earlier Council of Europe project on The Heritage of European Universities, which was carried out as a part of the “Europe, a Common Heritage” Campaign2.

Maintaining the principle of public responsibility for higher education and research in modern, complex societies characterised by a high number of claims on the resources of public authorities requires rethinking how public responsibility should be defined, as well as how it should be exercised. This requires a more nuanced view of the different elements of public responsibility, as well as of the level of public responsibility for each element and a consideration of the policy instruments at the disposal of public authorities.

Within this context, the Council of Europe, through its Steering Committee on Higher Education and Research, organised a major conference on The Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research at Council of Europe Headquarters in Strasbourg on 23 – 24 September 2004. The conference was a part of the Council of Europe’s contribution to the Bologna Process, but also aimed beyond the European Higher Education Area to encompass issues such as trade in higher education. This is by no means a new phenomenon, but it is an issue which is increasing in importance, as well as in profile, with a large number of new providers of varying quality. The CDESR has previously suggested that the issue of standards, notably for recognition and quality assurance, is a key concern in this respect, and that it should be the responsibility of public authorities. The CDESR has also suggested that the Lisbon Recognition Convention should be the standard for recognition of qualifications in Europe regardless of the context (cooperation or trade).

The conference on The Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research gave rise to a publication in the Council of Europe Higher Education Series3 as well as to a set of recommendations. It was on these bases that the CDESR Bureau launched work on a political recommendation that was then considered in detail by the CDESR plenary session in 2005 and by the CDESR Bureau before being submitted to the Committee of Ministers for adoption. Through the Recommendation, the Council of Europe makes a substantial contribution both to ensuring that public responsibility for higher education and research will continue to be a significant characteristic of the European Higher Education Area and to the broader debate on public responsibility in modern, complex societies.


The Preamble sets out the international legal and standard-setting texts of particular importance to the Recommendation, and also places the Recommendation in its proper context.

The Bologna Process, aiming to establish a European Higher Education Area by 2010, is the major reform process of higher education in Europe since the immediate aftermath of 1968. It currently encompasses 46 countries4, and the Council of Europe is a major contributor to the Bologna Process5.


The term “public responsibility” may be used in different meanings in various contexts. This part of the Recommendation specifies the sense in which the term is used for the purposes of the Recommendation: it addresses the issue of public responsibility for rather than of higher education and research, and it refers to the responsibility of public authorities, which may be exercised in different ways and at different levels.


The responsibility of public authorities extends to all purposes of higher education and research. While much recent debate has focused on the importance of higher education and research in economic and employment terms, it is important to underline that higher education and research serve multiple purposes, and that these are complementary rather than contradictory. Coherent higher education and research policies should therefore address the multiple concomitant purposes of higher education, which include:

The four purposes identified in the Recommendation are equally important, and the order in which they are listed does not reflect their relative importance. Rather, the order reflects current debate, which tends to emphasise the importance of higher education in relation to the labour market. The list, therefore, is presented from the most frequently discussed to those less frequently discussed.

The Recommendation also recalls that higher education institutions have important service functions in society at large.


While traditionally the public responsibility for higher education and research has, in many countries, been understood to mean that public authorities finance and run higher education and research institutions, modern, complex societies require a much more nuanced understanding. This responsibility will, in many cases, extend to financing and running institutions as well as higher education systems, but an understanding of the public responsibility for higher education and research must also extend to the full range of policy instruments available to public authorities, as well as to a consideration of what instruments are most appropriate in which circumstances.

The Recommendation suggests that there are three broad categories of responsibility:

These different categories are further developed in the subsequent parts of the Recommendation.

The exact choice of instruments will vary from country to country, but in defining their precise responsibility, public authorities should take due account of internationally accepted standards and developments.


The framework within which higher education and research are conducted is the exclusive responsibility of the competent public authority or authorities. They may delegate the implementation of specific parts of this framework, but overall responsibility rests with the competent public authority.

However, successful higher education policies depend on the contribution of a wide range of stakeholders, all with specific roles and competences. Therefore, in establishing and, as the case may be, implementing and overseeing the framework for higher education and research, public authorities are encouraged to consult with relevant stakeholders, in accordance with the Constitution and the legislative practice of each country.

Qualifications frameworks are descriptions of the various qualifications that make up a given education system as well as the way in which the various qualifications interlink. In qualifications frameworks, qualifications are described in terms of learning outcomes – what learners are expected to know and be able to do on the basis of a given qualification – rather than exclusively or primarily in terms of the procedures leading to the qualification or the time of study typically required to obtain the qualification in a traditional study programme. In 2005, the European Ministers engaged in the Bologna Process adopted an overarching framework of qualifications for the European Higher Education Area6. Public recognition and funding of higher education institutions and programmes may be made conditional on their compliance with national qualifications frameworks.

The agreement on the importance of quality assurance is one of the major developments in higher education in Europe since the Council of Europe/UNESCO Recognition Convention was adopted in 1997, and it is one of the major features of the European Higher Education Area. While quality assurance is an essential measure for the continued development of high quality higher education and research, protection of learners, prospective employers and other interested parties from non-serious providers, and to ensure that public funds are well spent on quality higher education and research. It is also important that quality assurance mechanisms be cost-effective, and that the benefits of such mechanisms outweigh their costs in terms of operational funds and the time invested in quality assurance by higher education staff. Public authorities should not necessarily carry out external quality assurance, but should be responsible for establishing the framework within which an independent agency conducts external quality assurance. Concern for the quality assurance of higher education that is provided not as a part of any national higher education system is increasing as such provision becomes more common. Reference is here made to the Guidelines on Quality Provision in Cross-Border Higher Education elaborated jointly by UNESCO and the OECD, and approved in December 20057 .


Public authorities should have a leading responsibility in ensuring that all qualified candidates enjoy equal opportunities to access higher education. The emphasis should be on ensuring effective – as opposed to merely formal – equal opportunities, which requires a close consideration of legal and policy instruments and periodic considerations of whether these in fact have the desired effects.

While much of the recent public debate has focused on equal opportunities to access to higher education – which was also the focus of a previous Council of Europe project, leading to Recommendation R (98) 3 on access to higher education in Europe – it is equally important for public authorities to ensure equal opportunity to complete quality higher education. The benefit of equal access is very significantly reduced if equal access does not imply equal opportunities for successfully completing higher education. In their Bergen Communiqué (2005), the European Ministers in charge of higher education restated their commitment to ensuring equal opportunities: “We therefore renew our commitment to making quality higher education equally accessible to all, and stress the need for appropriate conditions for students so that they can complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background”.

Responsibility for research

Access to research results is a complicated topic in which a range of legitimate and sometimes contradictory concerns must be balanced. The overall consideration for public authorities should be to ensure that basic research remains a public good. It is suggested that adequate public funding, as well as codes of ethical behaviour in research to prevent the misuse of research results, are essential policy instruments in this respect. As far as possible, public authorities should also ensure and encourage wide public access to research results. It is, however, recognised that there may in some cases be legitimate reasons for restricting such access, and it is recognised that copyright restrictions constitute one such important restriction.


In most European countries, public funding of higher education and research is relatively high and constitutes a significant portion of public budgets. Nevertheless, most higher education and research institutions will be unable to fulfil their ambitions on the basis of public funding alone, and they should be encouraged to seek supplementary funding within the legal and policy framework established by public authorities.

Public authorities should, however, explicitly recognise such funding as supplementary, and they should not seek to reduce the level of public funding for higher education and research with reference to funding legitimately obtained from other sources. To the contrary, substantial public investment in higher education and research is of critical importance to the continued development of European societies.

In most European countries, publicly run higher education and research institutions are a major feature of national higher education and research systems, and they should remain so in the future. The European Higher Education Area should be characterised by a high proportion of public institutions. However, the important role played by public institutions should not be considered as an impediment for organisations, bodies and individuals to establish higher education and research institutions and bodies within the legal and policy framework established by public authorities.

While there is a substantial public responsibility for financing higher education and research, as well as for higher education and research provision, there should be no public monopoly in this domain.


As stated above, public authorities should use the full range of policy instruments at their disposal in implementing comprehensive and successful higher education and research policies. In so doing, they should respect the principle of institutional autonomy and acknowledge that funding, motivating and stimulating the development of higher education and research is as important a part of their responsibility as the exercise of regulation and control.

1 General Agreement on Trade in Services

2 See Nuria Sanz and Sjur Bergan (eds.): The heritage of European universities (Strasbourg 2002: Council of Europe Publishing).

3 See Luc Weber and Sjur Bergan (eds.): The Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research (Strasbourg 2005: Council of Europe publishing. The Council of Europe Higher Education Series, vol. 2).

4 Montenegro joined the Bologna Process as the 46th country on 17 May 2007.

5 For more information on the Bologna Process, see http://www.coe.int/T/DG4/HigherEducation/default_en.asp, http://www.dfes.gov.uk/bologna/ and http://www.bologna-bergen2005.no/.

6 See http://www.bologna-bergen2005.no/Docs/00-Main_doc/050218_QF_EHEA.pdf and http://www.bologna-bergen2005.no/EN/Bol_sem/Seminars/050113-14Copenhagen/050113-14_General_report.pdf

7 See http://www.unesco.org/education/guidelines_E.indd.pdf