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The emerging governance of the European University Alliances: future-proof complexity?

As the European University Initiative nears its mid-term review, it is time to think seriously about how the alliances are governed. Complex setups must retain their fitness for purpose and benefit the university communities. In this article, EUA experts Thomas Estermann and Enora Bennetot Pruvot argue that the alliances must have the means to stay focused on collaboration – without being overburdened with multiple objectives.

The European Universities Initiative is a high priority on the EU political agenda and universities and policy makers alike welcome it with enthusiasm. To date, about a quarter of EUA members take part in the initiative. It is already clear that it can harness the energy of dedicated university staff, leaders and students, eager to further advance on the road of structural collaboration among European universities. As we approach the first mid-term review of the European University Initiative, it becomes relevant to explore how these alliances are governed, and which role governance plays in achieving the set goals, notably in terms of intensified collaboration. This is the core focus of EUA’s newly released paper “The governance models of the European University Alliances”.

Analysing the governance structures of the alliances reveals both similarities and a high degree of complexity. They typically combine institutional governance features (boards, assemblies) with project-related structures (sponsors, committees, work packages), while seeking to accommodate different organisational cultures existing within the consortia. Adequate “governance engineering” becomes a key aspect for the long-term success of the cooperation framework. In a nutshell, complex governance must remain both effective and inclusive, not cutting itself off from the core communities that drive and benefit from the deeper European collaboration. In this context, finding ways to assess  the fitness for purpose of the cooperation framework and maintain it over the long term is a crucial question. In other words: The priority is to ensure that the alliances stay focused on collaboration, and do not get overburdened with multiple objectives.

Evidence shows that the alliances are putting some serious thought into this. To support the universities currently engaged in this process, or looking into structural inter-institutional cooperation frameworks, gaining an enhanced awareness of the challenges involved will be of help. First, what are the objectives of the alliances? Beyond the various goals set for the alliances at the policy level, what is the added value of the chosen collaboration format, over other exisiting ones, for the institutions themselves? Second, what is the future of the governance structure being set up? What role will these bodies have in a possible post-pilot project phase? In a context where “exit costs” for alliance members are low, when compared to other types of concentration processes like mergers, the continued relevance and perceived added value of the governance structure is a crucial matter for consideration.

Another question to consider is the complexity of the setup, and the extent to which this future-proofs the alliance. As the organisational structure of the alliance reaches deep into the institution, via thematic and cascading clusters, it is paramount that it is properly embedded into the main institutional processes, to avoid a problematic disconnect from the universities key strategic priorities.

Two important goverance aspects need to be adressed here: One is the broad inclusion of leadership teams, at various levels within the institutions, which will be instrumental in sheltering the alliances from shifting foci and differing leadership cycles. Close connection between the alliance governance and that of its members must be sought, ensuring that partner institutions that feature dual governance structures have channels that involve both types of bodies, according to their competences. This will allow to maintain a solid link between the alliance vision and activities and the institutional strategies of the alliance members. The second is the engagement with, and involvement of representatives from all levels of the university governance, which may indeed at times be quite extensive. Nurturing a bottom-up approach of transformation remains an important mechanism to ensure that this initiative is not imposed top-down, but comes through motivated and inspired people from all levels of the institution who believe in the alliance vision.

Ensuring buy-in of the diverse university community and continued leadership commitment, over the longer run, also matters enormously when considering finances, which is in general an essential aspect of the sustainability of any collaboration scheme. Developing and maintaining the alliances requires and will continue to demand significant resources, primarily human ressources. In addition, depending on the funding framework, universities may  have to consider medium-term financial trade-offs, for instance with regard to the influx of EU students compared to higher fee-paying international students.

Awareness and full understanding of the differences between the respective regulatory and financial frameworks of the partners in the alliances will also be a key factor to long-term success in finding adequate governance solutions and achieving common goals. Differences as to accountability channels, and more concretely the players involved in financial decision-making processes at each institution, may play an important role.

All in all, the questions revolving around alliance governance remain very close to what is heard in institutional governance debates and reforms across Europe. The work at hand shall not be underestimated, considering its far-reaching consequences for engaged institutions. Effective governance of alliances supports the consortia in achieving their long-term objectives. But overburdening such complex setups with too many policy goals does little to effectively support intensified collaboration, which should remain at the heart of the initiative.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Enora Bennetot Pruvot

Enora Bennetot Pruvot is Deputy Director Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development at the European University Association

Thomas Estermann

Thomas Estermann is Director for Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development with responsibilities for EUA’s work aimed at strengthening universities’ autonomy, governance, management and their financial sustainability.

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