Relevant and high-quality higher education

Relevant and high-quality higher education equips students with the knowledge and transversal skills required to succeed after graduation.

Why is ensuring the relevance and quality of higher education important?

The European Union (EU) faces skills shortages, in particular in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and ICT fields of study. Women especially are underrepresented in these fields of study. 

Furthermore, new skills needs are emerging in the green and digital transitions of the EU society. The EU needs to act if it is to ensure the continuous development of skills required to remain economically competitive at the global level. 

More citizens should be encouraged to study subjects in which skills shortages and labour demand exist. All students need to acquire advanced transversal skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, and key competences, such as numeracy and digital skills, that will allow them to succeed after graduation.

What is the EU doing to improve the relevance and quality of higher education?

Championing the STEAM approach

The European Commission is promoting the development of more fit-for-purpose STEM and information and communications technology (ICT) higher education programmes based on the STEAM – science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics –approach to education.

STEAM is a multidisciplinary set of approaches to education removing traditional barriers between subjects and disciplines to connect STEM and ICT education with the arts, humanities, and social sciences. 

This approach facilitates the blending of knowledge between STEM and non-STEM fields of study and embeds experiential learning. The STEAM approach fosters better contextualisation of STEM subjects in political, environmental, socio-economic and cultural terms. 

The STEAM approach helps to tackle both crucial skills shortages and to encourage the development of transversal skills driving entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity. This work is supported by the EU STEM Coalition funded under the Erasmus+ programme and the actions outlined in the European Skills Agenda.

The European Graduate Tracking Initiative

The EU is encouraging Member States to improve the quality and relevance of their higher education and vocational education and training (VET) by regularly tracking graduates as part of the European Graduate Tracking Initiative. 

The purpose of this is to assess whether graduates’ knowledge, skills and competences are of sufficient quality and relevance to allow them to succeed in today's world of work and that of the future.

These efforts to improve the comparability of data on graduate outcomes at the European level will contribute to realising a true European Education Area by 2025. Notably, the European Graduate Tracking Initiative will support the co-creation of a transformation agenda for higher education in 2021.

The initiative will provide key insights to policymakers which will allow them to address diverse transnational education and skills challenges using an evidence-based approach.

In addition to this, graduate tracking helps to:

  • improve student experiences and to identify opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning 
  • determine inequalities in education and to find ways of addressing them
  • strengthen the employability of recent graduates by improving skills planning and matching with the needs of employers, curricula design and career guidance
  • provide insights into cross-border mobility patterns, including emerging regional surpluses and deficits in skills – so-called ‘brain drains’ and ‘brain gains’
  • efficiently target investment in high-quality education tailored to society’s needs
  • identify practices that best prepare graduates for active citizenship 

What has the EU done so far?

In follow up to the Renewed Agenda for Higher Education and the New Skills Agenda for Europe, the Council adopted a Recommendation on tracking graduates in November 2017. 

In this Recommendation, EU Member States (with the support of the Commission), committed to collecting comparable graduate tracking information in higher education and VET. In 2020, the Commission published a benchmarking study mapping the state of graduate tracking policies and practices in EU Member States and EEA countries against five key dimensions identified in the Council Recommendation.

Between 2018 and the end of its mandate in 2020, the Expert group on graduate tracking served as a forum for cooperation and exchange. Its activities culminated in the publication of a Final Report containing recommendations to the Commission on the future of the European graduate tracking initiative.

In 2020, the Commission undertook a Eurograduate Pilot Survey of graduates in 8 pilot countries – Austria, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Malta and Norway – evaluating data at the national level and comparing between Member States. This data will provide a useful evidence-base to policymakers and higher education professionals developing curricula.

Between 2020 and 2021, the Commission also launched tailor-made capacity-building activities in each EU Member States to make the national administration and research teams in Member States ready for a coordinated European graduate tracking mechanism. These activities include building ownership of the graduate tracking project among stakeholders, boosting IT and statistical capacity and others.  

What are the next steps?

Based on the exchanges and recommendations of the Expert group, the Commission is progressing work on graduate tracking by

  • ensuring continuous exchange among countries and further harmonisation of graduate tracking efforts through establishing a  network of national experts from every Member State to steer national efforts on graduate tracking and to facilitate liaison with European counterparts
  • exploring ways of advancing the approach to collecting graduate data by extracting information from existing national administrative databases in collaboration with the network of national experts
  • further expanding the European graduate survey through a second phase of the European pilot survey of higher education graduates, taking place in 2022 in 16-18 countries, and raising its quality
  • organising further studies and peer learning activities to improve the evidence base on graduate tracking practice and to make better use of data

In 2022, the Commission will take stock of progress made in implementing the Council Recommendation, with the expectation to see an 80% uptake among Member States by the end of 2024. 

The Commission expects to achieve European-wide implementation of graduate tracking by 2025.