Why does the European Union act externally on higher education?


Why would one want to understand the conditions that have allowed for the establishment of the European Union’s (EU) external higher education policy? Because these insights help to get one’s head around the externalisation trends in other fields of EU supporting and shared competence, from energy to health and migration. They also have relevant, practical implications for policy-makers desirous of extending EU external action.

The EU’s external action portfolio has been continuously broadening over the past decades, including in unlikely, originally internal policy areas of limited legal competence. The question of how and – especially – why the EU engages externally in these areas has however only recently made it onto the agenda of EU scholars. A 2020 article by Schunz and Damro, for instance, examined the emergence of EU external action on culture, an area of supporting competence. As another key example of a (sub-)national prerogative, the case of higher education policy is particularly puzzling. In this blog post, we summarise the empirical insights and the explanatory framework – drawing on the concepts of ‘opportunity’, ‘presence’ and ‘policy entrepreneurship’ – that we develop in our recent JCMS article.

The emergence and development of the external dimensions of EU higher education policy have been dynamic processes, as the below graph shows. Beyond the peculiar Bologna process, which started outside of, but was gradually integrated into the EU framework, the EU’s core activities in the realm of higher education have – since 2014 – been integrated in the Erasmus+ programme. While this new framework has systematised the ongoing internationalisation of higher education policies, the initial steps towards EU external engagement in this field were taken well before. They came, predominantly, in the form of tailored programmes targeting institutions and students outside the Union’s borders. Two key examples are the TEMPUS (1990) and the Erasmus Mundus (2003/04) programmes. Understanding which circumstances, intentions and actors enabled the establishment of these programmes provides the basis for reflecting on their implications in the final part of the blog post.


Graph: Key developments in the ‘externalisation’ of EU Higher Education Policy
Source: Authors’ compilation


The case of TEMPUS

The university support and cooperation scheme TEMPUS was established in 1989/1990 as a part of the European Community’s comprehensive response to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the ensuing democratization of the Central and Eastern European countries. Action in the realm of higher education was seen as essential to foster open societies in states like Poland or Czechoslovakia. This thinking was, most notably, informed by the successful start of the Erasmus exchange programme.

During that period, a relatively small group of policy entrepreneurs, spearheaded by the head of the Taskforce’s COMETT unit, David O’Sullivan, and driven by their idea(l)s, used the experience of the Erasmus exchange programme to react to the opportunity provided by the fall of the Wall by proposing TEMPUS. They were able to get their proposal adopted by building an inter-institutional coalition around their project and securing the broad political support – in the Commission, among the member states, and in the European Parliament – necessary for earmarking the additional financial resources.


The case of Erasmus Mundus

Ten years after TEMPUS, it was the 2000 Lisbon Strategy that encapsulated the EU’s new ambition in the field of higher education in response to the global discourses on ‘knowledge economies’, promoted among others by the OECD. Interestingly, it was the ‘TEMPUS unit’ of the newly established Directorate-General for Education and Culture (DG EAC) that was able to synthesise the zeitgeist in developing Erasmus Mundus. Inspired by the ‘Fulbright Program’ , Erasmus Mundus meant to improve the Union’s position in the worldwide ‘race for brains’ by – among others – attracting non-EU students with scholarships for joint study programmes.

Tracing the activities of Martin Westlake and Augusto Gonzalez, head and deputy head of the TEMPUS unit, between 2001 and 2003, when Erasmus Mundus was adopted, represents a prime example of successful policy entrepreneurship by Commission officials that capitalised on the expertise built up with Tempus and their convening power within the Commission and across EU institutions and member states. Their efforts benefitted from the eager support of external stakeholders (e.g. the European University Association) to foster an externalisation agenda on EU higher education policy.


The pattern

The comparison of the processes leading to the creation of these two landmark external higher education programmes suggests a clear-cut pattern regarding the emergence of EU external action in originally internal policy domains: for one, specific ‘policy windows’ open when external events and global discourses (‘opportunity’) coincide and resonate with EU internal structures and policy experiences (‘presence’); it then takes agency: policy entrepreneurs that address these policy windows by using their expertise and networks in order to build broad coalitions in favour of an ‘externalisation agenda’. These policy-makers are regularly driven by their normative convictions – in the case of higher education they believed in the value of responding to internationalisation trends and using higher education as a means of enhancing cooperation with third countries –, but also broader prospects for economic growth as well as their personal career ambitions.


The academic and practical implications

This pattern has both scholarly and policy implications that transcend the case of EU higher education policy. Academically, the co-existence of a ‘policy window’ and strong policy entrepreneurship seem to be able to explain how and why the EU engages externally even in the unlikely cases of EU policy fields of supporting/shared competence. This pattern can currently be observed in the way EU policy-makers are in the process of expanding EU external action in health policy, a supporting competence, in the context of the policy window provided by the Covid-19 pandemic.

From a policy perspective, our insights show that the trend towards an ever-broader EU external policy portfolio may well continue. What it takes are policy entrepreneurs capable of framing their externalisation proposals in ways that resonate with (interpretations of) external trends and are strongly informed by previous EU policy experiences. If they get this framing right, these entrepreneurs can capitalise on their knowledge of the EU’s internal policy process to gradually co-opt additional actors into a pro-external action coalition in a specific field. While not specifically analysed in this study, the relevance of personal networks converging around certain ideas around the need for such a policy expansion –inside and outside the institutions – strongly suggests itself in both case studies.


This blog post draws on the JCMS article “Opportunity, presence and entrepreneurship: why the European Union acts externally on higher education”.



Carsten Gerards is Ph.D. candidate at Leiden University (Institute of Security and Global Affairs) and Senior Academic Assistant in the EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies Department at the College of Europe (Bruges).




Simon Schunz is Professor in the EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies Department at the College of Europe (Bruges).





Chad Damro is Senior Lecturer of Politics and International Relations, Dean International – Europe and Co-Director of the Europa Institute at the University of Edinburgh.