Show Less
Open access

Joint Modules and Internationalisation in Higher Education

Reflections on the Joint Module «Comparative Studies in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning»


Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer, Paula Guimaraes and Balázs Németh

This volume places the development of the Joint Module «Comparative Studies in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning» (COMPALL) in the context of international development in higher education and adult education. Based on this framework, the authors discuss the development of the joint module in terms of its institutional and didactical structure as well as participants’ motivation and diversity. The book is divided into three parts: (1) Internationalisation in Higher Education, (2) Internationalisation of Higher Education: The Case of Adult Education, and (3) Internationalisation of Higher Education: The Example of COMPALL.

Show Summary Details
Open access

Crossing borders and shifting boundaries in joint master’s programmes between Asia and Europe (Que Anh Dang)

Que Anh Dang

Crossing Borders and Shifting Boundaries in Joint Masters Programmes between Asia and Europe

Abstract: This contribution addresses the complexity in establishing Erasmus Mundus joint masters programmes between European and Asian universities. It analyses the rationales of collaboration, governance model, and sustainability of the programmes. It argues that university consortia construct a ‘third space where they shift the boundaries between regional, national, and institutional regulatory environments in order to sustain the partnerships and improve learning and teaching experiences.

Why are European-Asian joint master’s programmes desirable?

Joint programmes have increasingly been seen as a means to achieve multiple goals of the internationalisation of higher education. In addition to classic academic and intellectual exchange, there is a global awareness of the economic and diplomatic importance of international joint programmes. Higher education institutions are becoming key players in the global knowledge society, and they are increasingly driven by economically oriented rationales (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010), which may be related to enhancing the international reputation and quality of an institution or to improving the competitive position of a country or a region. Approaches chosen to achieve these goals range from institutional, national strategies to regional cooperation policies. Consequently, various forms of joint programmes emerge in different parts of the world, especially in Europe, where supranational political, financial, and technical support is made available for the internationalisation of higher education.

Two important European strategies, the Bologna Process launched in 1999 and the European Union (EU) Lisbon Strategy launched in 2000, are aimed at strengthening the role of universities and building a ‘Europe of Knowledge (Wright, 2004). The Bologna Process emphasises the cooperation, networking, and commensurability of higher education across Europe, whereas the Lisbon Strategy, particularly its competitive agenda, aims at making the European education and training systems ‘a world quality reference and the Union ‘the most-­favoured destination of students, scholars and researchers from other world regions (EC, 2006, p. 240). Joint programmes, hence, have been seen←53 | 54→ as an innovative way to materialise these objectives, loaded with expectations of becoming a hallmark of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and contributing to Europe as a competitive economic region. Precisely for these reasons, the EU in 2004 launched a new outward-­looking programme, known as Erasmus Mundus (EM), which attracted international talent and promoted cooperation with countries beyond the EU borders. Whereas other European aid programmes specify and limit the eligible countries and establish a kind of donor-­recipient relationship with non-­European countries, Erasmus Mundus was open to all partner universities and students in the whole world. This implies the complexity in establishing partnerships, mediating different interests, negotiating multi-­level rules, designing international curricula, and delivering joint courses to students of diverse backgrounds (Dang, 2007). Joint programmes are neither new nor unique; however, very scant scholarly attention is paid to how they work in practice and what lessons could be gleaned from developments in an Asia-­Europe collaborative context.

This contribution, therefore, examines two cases of EM joint programmes in the field of education. Each of these two-­year masters courses is jointly offered by a consortium of European and Asian universities and mainly financed by the European Commission in the form of partnership development and management funds and study grants for students and visiting scholars. First, the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning: Policy and Management (MALLL) was offered from 2006 to 2017 by a consortium of four universities from Denmark, England, Spain, and Australia. Second, the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education (MARIHE) ran from 2011 to 2016 and involved four universities from Austria, Finland, Germany, and China. The cases are chosen because they both are in the field of education and involve non-­European partners. They both were successful in offering unique programmes to a large number of students and in obtaining two rounds of funding from the European coffers. However, the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning is closed down, and the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education suspended its intake in 2017. Hence, the trajectories of their partnership developments present interesting cases to explore.

The chapter seeks to explain how these international partnerships were established and developed over time, what processes of negotiation took place, and what factors affect the operation and sustainability of the joint programmes in this specific field of education. Drawing on the primary empirical data from the authors six-­year experience of studying and working in the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning and five interviews with the Master in Research and Inno←54 | 55→vation in Higher Education students and professors, the chapter will analyse the advantages and constraints encountered in the development of partnerships. It is also argued that these EU-­funded joint programmes tend to construct themselves as a ‘third space where they move in and out on an ongoing basis and shift the boundaries between this supranational ‘third space and different national and institutional regulatory environments in order to maintain the partnerships and pursue their superordinate educational purposes, such as improving student learning experiences and professional networks among academics, rather than the competitiveness or financial gains of their member institutions.

Crossing borders and shifting boundaries

Joint programmes are defined differently in the literature. Some definitions specify technical aspects, such as a single joint qualification awarded at the end of an international collaborative programme, that determine the type of joint degree programme and distinguish it from other types of cooperation (Knight, 2011; Schüle, 2006). Such narrow definitions fail to capture other important characteristics, such as the ‘jointness and ‘cohesion in the course design, curriculum, learning and teaching experience, admission criteria, assessment of student work. As the case studies show, this jointness can only be achieved through various processes of crossing not only physical borders between countries and universities but also shifting intangible boundaries, such as culture, discipline, institutional norms and rules. Boundaries are ‘conceptual distinctions constructed by people and organisations to categorise reality and recognise a collective identity, such as distinctive characters of a higher education system or a university (Amaral, Tavares, Cardoso, & Sin, 2015). Although higher education institutions increasingly interact with external environments and international partners, they maintain their identity through the concept of boundaries, which are influenced by cultural, legislative, and political contexts.

In developing joint programmes, boundaries are often viewed as sources of potential obstacles, but they can also be a source of deep learning when they force collaborators to take a fresh look at their long-­standing practices (Tsui & Law, 2007). As a result, collaborators may create opportunities for the transformation of conflicting ideas and practices into a rich zone of learning. Tsui et al. (2007) also argue that in the course of resolving contradictions, very often, a more encompassing motive is constructed for the joint actions of collaborators, thus shifting boundaries. Consequently, collaborators create a ‘third space temporally or physically where different ideas meet and form new meanings – where negotiations, learning, and changes take place. Precisely for these reasons, the joint←55 | 56→ programmes examined in this chapter emerged as a ‘third space – a new territory mediating between academic, cultural, and regulative systems and between regional, national, and institutional levels. But the joint programmes alone cannot construct themselves into a ‘third space. The next section will analyse how the regional initiative, Erasmus Mundus, serves as a mechanism that enables the emergence of such a ‘third space.

Governance model and the creation of a ‘third space

Erasmus Mundus joint programmes have a unique form of governance. The most noticeable feature is that the dominant source of funding comes from the European Commission. In the first phase (2004–2009), Erasmus Mundus scholarships were granted to non-­European students only, and courses were designed and delivered by consortia consisting of three European universities (at least one partner university from a EU member country). However, in its second phase (2009–2013), a number of Erasmus Mundus scholarships (with a lesser amount of money per scholarship) were added for European students. At the same time, the consortia were required to engage non-­European universities to diversify mobility opportunities and to make the Erasmus Mundus programme more attractive, truly international, and less ‘Eurocentric. As observed by Dale (2016), Erasmus Mundus joint programmes are sponsored by transnational funding and implemented by subnational institutions that operate internationally. Here trans means cross nations, sub refers to below nations, and inter denotes between nations. All these prefixes connote various borders and boundaries and different levels of governance in the structure of Erasmus Mundus. This joint programme model requires border-­crossing and boundary-­shifting, thus facilitating the creation of a ‘third space where the members move in and out on an ongoing basis, actively learning to recognise and shift the boundaries between multilevel regulatory environments in order to sustain the partnerships.

Both the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning and the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education institutional partnerships were built on personal relationships between individual academics who knew each other before. Between 2006–2010, the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning was jointly offered by the Danish University of Education, the London Institute of Education (England), and Deusto University (Spain). In 2010, the University of Melbourne (Australia) joined the consortium. Students could study the first two semesters in either Denmark or England but they were required to complete the third semester in Spain. The semester in Australia was mainly for the European students.←56 | 57→ Dissertations in the final semester had to be written and assessed at one of the three European universities. The choice of university for the dissertations was determined by the availability of supervisors and expertise at each place and visa requirements.

The Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education was founded in 2011; from the beginning, the consortium included Beijing Normal University (China) alongside Danube University Krems (Austria), University of Tampere (Finland), and University of Applied Sciences Osnabrück (Germany). All students started in Austria, then moved together to Finland for the second semester and to China for the third semester. The three European universities supervised and assessed the dissertations in the fourth semester.

The consortia were managed by a Steering Committee made up of academic representatives from all member universities and supported by a secretariat located at the coordinating university and an administrative committee consisting of administrators from all member universities. The committee met face-­to-­face three times per year. An overall governance model of the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning and the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education, at the time of writing, is illustrated in Figure 1 below, raising the questions of which entity regulates what, and according to which rules?

The main funder (the European Commission) devises its own rules (Erasmus Mundus Programme Guide) on how to run Erasmus Mundus joint programmes. This funder and its executive agency maintain close contacts with the Steering Committee (via the Coordinator/Manager of the Consortium) for all matters ranging from student recruitment, their mobility tracks to finance management. Although the department leaders (deans) sign the consortium and finance agreements, the Steering Committee – a special international unit created to mediate between different practices and regulations (e.g. the Danish law on free tuition vs. the English law on full tuition fees, different grading systems and grade conversions between China, Australia, and Europe) – makes a new set of rules to run the joint programme. For example, each consortium set their own selection/admission criteria, common tuition fee, and student assessment criteria which are different from other domestic courses at each member university. This shared institutional regulatory space is created and legitimised by the Commission as a ‘new and distinct space of regional educational governance (Dale, 2016, p. 78). However, this space may at times become detached or isolated from their host universities, especially when organisational changes occur due to university mergers and staff turnover, or even due to the personal agendas of the programme coordinators who want to create their own space.←57 | 58→

Figure 1: A governance model of an Erasmus Mundus joint programme


Source: Authors compilation

The power of the funder

Since the launch of the EU Lisbon Strategy in 2000, the European Commission has extended its involvement in the higher education sector through various European initiatives (Keeling, 2006), such as supporting structural reform under the umbrella of the Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area, Erasmus Mundus for strengthening European integration, and enhancing the competitiveness and global reach of European higher education. This involvement has also increased the European Commissions power in its various forms. Lukes (2005) conceptualises those forms in three dimensions. In the first dimension, power is visible in decision-­making processes. In the Erasmus Mundus programme, not only the outcomes of such process count but also other aspects of power, such as the power to keep certain issues off the table, or to exclude certain groups, or to limit their access to decision-­making processes. As observed in the two cases, national ministries of education were not directly included in the flow of information. The second dimension consists of the power to set and control the agenda, in the form of the structure, governance, organisation, and evaluation of the joint programmes. The third and perhaps←58 | 59→ most powerful dimension incorporates and transcends the first two dimensions. This third face of power is not directly visible because it is the capacity to shape preferences and to secure consent and compliance to domination without the explicit exercise of power. Not only is the European Commission able to set criteria for participation in the consortia and the selection of joint programmes for funding, it can also use the prestigious status of the Erasmus Mundus programme to steer the action of participating universities. For instance, Beijing Normal University (BNU) has convinced the Chinese Ministry of Education to give permission and recognise the 2-year Masters in Research and Innovation in Higher Education, although the national law requires 3 years for a masters degree.

Dang: How to get the permission to run a 2-year masters degree?

BNU: […] I said it is an Erasmus Mundus programme […] It is a real challenge for us because joint degree programme is not allowed by the Chinese law. I dont use the word ‘joint programme but a kind of student mobility. I am not telling lie, but only part of the truth. I told them all the good things I know about the project. If I tell them it is for student learning/understanding, they will not believe me, but I tell them that the programme is contributing to the socio-­economic development through mobility activity, developing creative talent of diverse backgrounds. I use the word ‘creative talent. I have to link the European programme to the Chinese discourse. (Interview 3, May 2014)

This answer explains how a partner mediates between different regulative contexts and also demonstrates that power works most effectively and insidiously when it is hidden.

Motivations for collaboration

In the two cases, both internal and external factors motivate universities to collaborate. Internal factors such as developing a specialised subject area (e.g. lifelong learning), pooling and developing talent (recruiting international teachers and students), leveraging resources, and building and expanding professional networks act as incentives for engaging in a partnership. Internal factors vary across the partner universities and over time. For example, the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education consists of three European specialised universities/faculties of education with relatively limited resources (expertise, teaching staff), meaning the partnership enables them to design and offer programmes and learning experiences that were not possible at individual universities alone (interview 1, 3 in May 2014). As for Beijing Normal University, the main motivation for participating in an Erasmus Mundus programme was to increase their prestigious position nationally and internationally. In←59 | 60→ the case of the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning, despite the fact that Denmark has a long tradition of lifelong learning, the joint programme was established as the first international masters course specialised in this subject and taught in English at the Danish University of Education. International lecturers were recruited to develop the modular curricula and to teach alongside the Danish lecturers, many of whom were reluctant to teach in English. Joining the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning, Melbourne University was keen to attract more European students to their campus which has mainly been populated by Asian students. They also need partners for sending their students to Europe. In both cases, internal factors also include the academics individual motivations to expand their capacities (international teaching and research experience) and professional networks. Although the partner universities and their staff have their own motivations and priorities for participating, the partnership can still be established and developed as long as it is mutually beneficial.

In terms of external factors, perhaps the strongest pressure comes from the requirements for cross-­border partnership set by the European Commission. Another external factor is the perception that employers value the inter-­cultural competences and international experience of students graduating from joint programmes (interviews 2, 3, 4 in May 2014). The internal and external motivations shape the options and behaviours of the participating universities and individuals nested under the joint programme.

The role of champions

The success of the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning and the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education depends considerably on having an overall consortium leader as well as coordinators at each university. They are members of the Steering Committee in the figure above. They can be seen as champions who play a key role in developing enthusiasm and ensuring support for the joint project (Chapman, Pekol, & Wilson, 2014; de Róiste, Breetzke, & Reitsma, 2015). Some of these champions in the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning and the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education were deans of the participating academic faculties, others were senior academics or rising star academics with vast professional networks. These champions are important but they are also in a delicate position: they need to constantly and actively move between their institutional environment and the ‘third space, mediating between their long-­term institutional attachment and the temporary project-­based joint programme.←60 | 61→

The sustainability of partnership

Although Erasmus Mundus joint programmes can expand resources and capacities, they also increase operational complexity. There is an immense time commitment required to establish and maintain a partnership and make it thrive. While the international partnership may be personally and professionally rewarding for those involved, the commitment may be too high if the work is not valued by the management and academic community within the host institution. That was the case with the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning in its last five years due to university mergers and a change of leadership at the Danish and English partners. The enthusiasm of the people involved and the energy invested in the partnership gradually diminished. At the same time, the European funding came to an end. Lack of institutional support at all participating universities, huge administrative burdens, and staff changes ruined the idea of putting together a new funding application. Consequently, the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning is closed down after ten years of operation. In the case of the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education, enthusiasm and commitment remain high, but the competition for European funding is so fierce that the joint programme had to suspend its operation in 2017. Unlike other high-­tech or commercial subjects, the nature of an educational programme and its low ‘return on investment make it more challenging to recruit self-­paying students to sustain the costly international joint programmes.

Concluding remarks

Using the case studies of the Master Programme in Lifelong Learning and the Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education, this chapter has explained how European-­Asian joint programmes work in practice. While recognising the importance of economic rationale of joint programmes in general, the focus of this chapter is on the development rationale and the challenges faced by individual partners and the consortia. The institutional partnerships are built on personal friendships. The explicit benefits of the partnership are the learning from one another and the collegiality that bonds partners together. Although such a development rationale is well suited to the field of education, it does cause financial vulnerability and affect the viability of joint programmes.

In order to sustain the partnerships, the partners have to negotiate and mediate between different and even conflicting regulations of the main funder, national laws, and member universities. Using Lukes three-­dimensional concept←61 | 62→ of power (decision-­making, agenda-­setting, manipulation/latent authority), the chapter argues that the European Commission shapes the processes and practices at institutional and national levels. Such influence also encourages boundary-­shifting and facilitates the creation of a ‘third space in temporal, spatial, and physical terms. The sustainability of joint programmes also depends significantly on the role of leader-­champions who believe strongly in the partnerships and have the ability to generate effective cohesiveness and support to maintain the commitment of all members through different stages of partnership development.


Amaral, Alberto / Tavares, Orlanda / Cardoso, Sónia / Sin, Christina: “Shifting institutional boundaries through cross-­border higher education”. Journal of Studies in International Education 20(1), 2015, pp. 48–60.

Chapman, David W. / Pekol, Amy / Wilson, Elisabeth: “Cross-­border university networks as a development strategy: Lessons from three university networks focused on emerging pandemic threats”. International Review of Education 60(5), 2014, pp. 619–637.

Dale, Roger: “Erasmus Mundus and the EU:Intrinsic Sectoral Regionalism in Higher Education”. In Robertson, Susan L. / Olds, Kris / Dale, Roger / Dang, Que Anh (eds.): Global Regionalisms and Higher Education: Projects, Processes, Politics Projects, Processes, Politics. Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK et al. 2016, pp. 65–84.

Dang, Que Anh: Erasmus Mundus: Europeanisation and Internationalisation as a Foundation for the Globalisation of European Higher Education. (Unpublished semester paper, Danish School of Education). 2007.

European Commission (EC): The History of European Cooperation in Education and Training. Europe in the Making – An Example. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publ. of the European Communities 2006.

Keeling, Ruth: “The Bologna Process and the Lisbon Research Agenda: The European Commissions expanding role in higher education discourse”. European Journal of Education 41(2), 2006, pp. 203–223.

Knight, Jane: “Doubts and Dilemmas with Double Degree Programs”. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento 8(2), 2011, pp. 297–312

Lukes, Steven: Power: A Radical View (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke 2005.

Rizvi, Fazal/ Lingard, Bob: Globalizing Education Policy. London & New York: Routledge 2010.←62 | 63→

Róiste, Mairéad de / Breetzke, Gregory / Reitsma, Femke: “Opportunities across boundaries: Lessons from a collaboratively delivered cross-­institution Masters programme”. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 39(3), 2015, pp. 470–477.

Schüle, Ulrich: Joint and Double Degrees within the European Higher Education Area. Towards Further Internationalisation of Business Degrees. CIDD Papers on International Business Education (Vol. 1) 2006.

Tsui, Amy B. M. / Law, Doris Y. K.: “Learning as boundary-­crossing in school – university partnership”. Teaching and Teacher Education 23, 2007, pp. 1289–1301.

Wright, Susan: “Markets, corporations, consumers? New landscapes of higher rducation”. Learning and Teaching in the Social Science 1(2), 2004, pp. 71–93.←63 | 64→ ←64 | 65→