Developing joint masters programmes for Europe:

Master programmes are increasingly being looked to as innovative instruments to improve inter-institutional cooperation in Europe, and to respond to a particularly European academic and labour market needs. The benefits that this master bestow on all higher education actors merit greater recognition. The student mobility periods- in terms of the development of a range of social, linguistic and inter-cultural management skills- are often assumed, but do not occur naturally, is an added value of master programmes.


The benefits that these structured joint programmes bestow on all higher education actors merit greater recognition. The added value of student mobility periods - in terms of the development of a range of social, linguistic and inter-cultural management skills - are often assumed, but do not occur naturally. Excellent conditions for joint study programmes have to be created through careful planning, and continually nurtured and supported by all actors, including governmentsand institutions. Through such positive collaboration, the learning process expands horizons not only for students, but also for academics and institutions who stand to gain in today’s competitive global landscape through European collaboration and mutual learning. As the Erasmus Mundus programme anticipates, Europe can also benefit enormously through the development of high quality joint master programmes, which have the potential to meet a wide range of European needs, and also to place European higher education as a reference for quality on the global map.

From the student perspective, the benefits of participating in a Master programme are immense. Studying in structures programmes that offer learning opportunities in another institution and country stimulates new ways of thinking and generates a wealth of new cultural opportunities, including the possibility to develop and extend language-learning skills and being exposed to new learning methods. Working with students and professors in multi-cultural environments enhances experiences of European culture and extends pan-European social and technological knowledge. Developing permanent network links across Europe assists future employment prospects and, in this context, graduates’ CVs have considerable “added value.” There is no doubt that such learning experiences change lives, broaden intellectual horizons and offer new professional perspectives.

For academics, these programmes provide professional development opportunities outside their national context. The developed and tested ties within a network build solid bases for international cooperation. They can facilitate research contacts and enable exploration of complementarities in teaching and learning methods. Interaction is fostered between teaching and research in specialised areas and staff benefit from the exposure to different academic environments and traditions.

For institutions that make the choice to integrate this Master programm as part of their strategic planning, they benefit from learning about policy and practice in other European institutions and countries, and place themselves at the forefront of European inter-university cooperation. They also have the opportunity to combine the diverse strengths of individual institutions, some of which may be small in size, and build a greater potential for specialised programmes with high quality teachers and infrastructure. An institution’s involvement in innovative and collaborative programmes may enhance its international reputation and attract new students.

And lastly for Europe, there are clear benefits from the further development of these programmes. They contribute to the retention of Europe’s best students, attract overseas students, and encourage cooperation with non-European institutions in the name of international understanding. Finally, they should lead to the development of truly European citizenship and cultural understanding.

Obstacles to students, academics and institutions arise primarily from shortcomings in the existing arrangements for co-operation between European higher education systems. The Recognition of joint degrees is a fundamental issue, linked also to issues of quality assurance and funding. The recognition problem has been extensively discussed, and action is being taken to ensure that the Lisbon Recognition Convention is amended to include provision for fair recognition of joint degrees. This issue is also on national agendas for legislative reform following the pledge made by European Ministers of Education in the Berlin Communiqué to resolve the problem (September 2003). However, it is not only legal texts but attitudes that need to change - not merely to permit joint programmes to exist, but to encourage them to develop and flourish.

A range of issues also need to be addressed and solved by institutions - and indeed it is at the level of institutional policy where genuine commitment is required. Clear internal quality assurance procedures which are implemented across networks are needed, and institutional responsibility for students studying at several institutions needs to be defined. Unless institutions address these questions as part of their strategy to reform, develop and internationalise, the undoubted benefits which these programmes provide to students and academics will be clouded by a range of concerns.

It is clear from the project that there is no one “ideal” model of partnership: many patterns exist and are equally successful. Future networks must have the courage to create structures that work for them - whether or not they work for others. Attention to the “golden rules” provided at the end of this report should help new networks to focus their early discussions on key issues.

Students face considerable costs in undertaking joint programmes, most of which must be self-financed due to the low levels of support generally available. This means that only students with sufficient personal financial means are able to participate in these courses. There is a risk that, unless targeted support for financially disadvantaged students is provided, such programmes will develop as the privilege of an elite class of students, and will fail to make much impact upon European higher education and society as a whole. The inequity in fee structures across Europe further aggravates these trends and needs to be tackled. These fundamental issues of inclusiveness and equity have as yet scarcely been addressed at policy level, and particular challenges arise in relation to new member and future accession states. Even if absolute numbers of students studying in joint master programmes remain small, the impact upon society can be significant if solutions are found to enable fair access to all on the basis of merit and potential. A pioneering spirit has been used in all networks to address problems in the interests of students. Europe has now reached the stage where the results of this pioneering activity should be built upon to ensure that joint programmes are developed in a sustainable manner, and opportunities are expanded for all in Europe.


To ensure the success of a project, some golden rules should be considered:

  • 1. Know why you are setting up the programme.

New programmes should think very carefully of their motivation. Is there a gap at national or European level which needs to be filled? Is a joint programme the most appropriate mechanism? What is the anticipated academic value-added?

  • 2. Choose your partners carefully.

Strong communication and trust is essential to develop common learning objectives and standards. Communication is also important in ensuring that all study periods at partner institutions are fully recognised. Consider issues such as how many institutional partners would make sense for the programme, and how similar or diverse the institutions should be.

  • 3. Develop well-defined programme goals and student-learning outcomes with your network partners.

For a network to be balanced, it is important that all partners are involved in developing and defining the programme goals. As well as being part of a common learning process, it is much easier to identify with a programme in which all intellectual contributions are valued - rather than simply taking part in the implementation of a ready-made concept/product. This implies the establishment of an effective joint curriculum, tailor-made for its purpose. It is important to ensure, through curriculum arrangements, that all students have the opportunity to study in at least two different countries.

  • 4 Ensure that a sustainable funding strategy for the programme is in place.

Such a strategy should think about resource management issues not at the level of individual institutions but across the network as a whole. Are resources within the network sufficient? Are they equitably distributed? Is it possible to do more to support partners facing particular difficulties?

  • 5 Take care that information about the programme is easily accessible to students.
Comparable information should be provided to students from all participating institutions. In addition to course information and admission criteria and procedures, requirements in terms of mobility should be specified, including how issues such as accommodation should be addressed, and clear information should be provided about the qualification/degree that will be awarded. Consideration should be given to accessibility for economically disadvantaged and physically disabled students.

  • 6 Organise and plan sufficient meetings in advance.

Developing a joint programme takes time. Sufficient meetings should be foreseen for network partners to develop ideas together and to assess collaboratively the coherence of the study programme. Make sure that there is agreement on learning outcomes, use of ECTS (including a common value of a credit), and use of the Diploma Supplement. Where there are doubts about how to use these instruments, make sure that learning processes are in place and information is available.

  • 7 Develop language policy and encourage local language learning.

The programme will need to make decisions about the language(s) of instruction, as well as about how to best exploit opportunities for students to learn languages during their programme. Questions about language should not be an afterthought of curriculum planning, but a central consideration. Linguistic preparation of mobility periods is an effective way of involving colleagues and departments within institutions, and a variety of language-learning techniques and approaches are possible.

  • 8 Decide who is responsible for what.

A clear division of tasks and responsibilities will help networks to function effectively. Not all institutions need to have the same level of involvement in programmes, and diversity of contributions can allow the network partners to focus upon particular strengths. A clear division of labour will help to ensure that there is minimum duplication of tasks as cost and time efficiency will be important to achieve. Often this may be achieved by the establishment of a centralised agency to administer the programme, operating under the generalised control of the network partners.


  • 1.Potential

One of the factors driving the interest in developing new joint programmes is the belief that such programmes will be extremely attractive to students from outside Europe. While this issue has not been an explicit concern of this project – the primary interest being rather to examine the actual and potential role of joint programmes to enhance cooperation within Europe – there are several points which merit consideration in this context.

Although the main interest of the networks within this project has been to promote joint Masters programme development and inter-institutional cooperation within Europe, it is true that effort is needed to improve information and marketing. The network coordinators all agree that a central information point and database for joint Master programmes is needed in Europe. Not only students outside Europe, but also students outside European Union countries, face particular difficulties in obtaining clear information about courses, as well as precise information about matters such as tuition fees, the general cost of living, procedures for visa application, sources of grants and scholarships etc. Lack of information, combined with the high tuition and mobility costs in some countries for third-country applicants (non-EU students) undoubtedly has a major deterrent effect on potential students. The need for clear and simple procedures and information is evident. The situation is clearly set to change with the launch of Erasmus Mundus. While there is a great deal of positive potential, it is to be hoped that no damage will be done to those European programmes whose main target audience is within Europe, which are of great worth and merit European support. Altering the nature of such a programme as a result of pressure to attract students from outside Europe may not be the best rationale for curriculum development.

  • 2.Challenges for Erasmus Mundus
This joint master programme welcomes the opportunities that will be provided through Erasmus Mundus to increase institutional cooperation both within Europe and with the wider world. A programme focused upon the role of European higher education in the global context is extremely timely - recognising the central role that higher education needs to continue to play in the future development of a Europe of knowledge.

As an outcome of this EUA joint Masters project, three key challenges for Erasmus Mundus can be identified:

    • 2.1 Challenge of Equity:

As Erasmus Mundus is being launched in a year when the European Union opens up to ten new member states - mainly in Central and Eastern Europe - it provides an important opportunity to make this new European reality visible in the global context. However, this can only be achieved by addressing questions of equity, as many institutions and students from these accession countries are currently excluded from such joint programmes solely because of financial disadvantage. Indeed one of the notable features of this Joint Masters project was that the response to the call came overwhelmingly from networks of institutions in Western Europe. Specific attention is therefore required to address the challenge of how to ensure that Central and Eastern European institutions and students are fully integrated into European higher education programmes, and this is particularly important for a flagship programme launched at a time of European expansion.

The number of talented students with the ability to benefit from learning opportunities in other European institutions is as high in the east and the south as it is in the north and the west. Bearing these factors in mind, a number of measures should be considered:

*Geographically balanced selection of networks: Erasmus Mundus selection should encourage an overall geographical balance of institutions. There is no reason why this should not be possible while also maintaining a focus on high standards of academic quality;

*Targeted financing for students from low socio-economic status backgrounds within Europe: The Erasmus Mundus programme proposes to spend considerable public funds on third-country student grants (i.e. for students from countries outside the European Union), irrespective of students’ financial needs.

    • 2.2 Challenge of Transition:

The relationship between joint Masters degree courses and the proposed Erasmus Mundus Masters courses is one which requires consideration. It is possible that in some respects many well established networks will not comply with the selection criteria developed for Erasmus Mundus and this is likely to be most obvious in areas where legal obstacles prevail in national systems, for example in the offering of joint or double degrees. It would be unfortunate if the systems developed by the networks to find ways around these obstacles were found to be incompatible with selection criteria. It is important that no damage is done to long-standing joint programmes that have developed their own innovative solutions to various obstacles, and yet initially may not comply with the criteria imposed by Erasmus Mundus.

    • 2.3 Challenge of Quality:

Erasmus Mundus is intended to become a worldwide- recognised symbol of high academic quality for European Masters courses. The concept of a European Masters is innovative and will be developed during the programme, yet it is clear already that selection of high quality courses will provide major challenges. How is quality to be recognised? Who is capable of recognising it? What features need to be looked at? Can quality be seen from paper applications? Is it possible to compare the quality of joint programmes addressing different disciplinary and thematic areas?

These are just a sample of the difficult challenges which any selection process will confront. It is clear that institutional responsibility for ensuring the quality of programmes needs to be strengthened, and thought also needs to be given as to how the value-added of European cooperation can be adequately recognised. At the same time, care should be taken to avoid the creation of separate quality assurance systems for European joint programmes which are expensive to operate, and impose a burden of bureaucratic requirements which would stifle the enthusiasm and creativity of staff. On the contrary, it is to be hoped that the pioneering work of such staff will now be adequately rewarded.

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