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SOTEU 2022: What’s in it for higher education?

On 14 September, President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her, traditional for this time of the year, State of the Union speech. While her address has largely been marked by the war raging in Ukraine and Europe’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people, as well as the Union’s response to the energy crisis, the topics of sustainability and growth driven by the green and digital transitions have also been high on the agenda.

Against this background, higher education has been referenced in three different contexts ranging from skills development and talent attraction to democracy risks. Recognising the key role of “a workforce with the right skills”, Ursula von der Leyen has announced 2023 being the European Year of Skills. Enhancing training opportunities jointly with companies and in line with their needs,  as well as attracting global talent while facilitating a smoother recognition of foreign qualifications are considered crucial for Europe’s competitiveness and growth.

Both of these goals strongly resonate with the European Innovation Agenda which pays prominent attention to attracting and retaining talent, as outlined in the draft Council conclusions as of 12 September 2022.

The Commission’s President has also spoken about threats to democracy, citing examples of foreign interference” and disinformation “spreading from the internet to the halls of our universities”. Such risks have been addressed in several EU strategic documents, including the Global Approach to Research and Innovation and the Council conclusions on principles and values for international cooperation in research and innovation.

The stakeholder response to the outlined priority areas for higher education have been rather mixed. The Lifelong Learning Platform (LLLP), for example, warned against narrowing down the role of learning to “labour market participation” and to the fight against “any challenge of our current times”.  The European University Association (EUA) stressed the value of knowledge-driven rather than demand-oriented higher education. The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) underlined the importance of investing in international education as a pre-condition “to achieve a skills revolution”.

One important aspect, absent in this year’s address yet key for ACA members, is the longer term support to Ukrainian universities and academics and the rebuilding of the country’s higher education system as the locomotive of the post-war reconstruction next to school education singled out as one of strategic priorities in the SOTEU 2022.