As the mid-term evaluation of the first European University Alliances comes up, stakeholders must keep a balanced approach and look at the future of the initiative in a holistic way. As EUA expert Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik points out, this means taking into account political ambitions, systemic considerations, and - first and foremost - the concerns of the universities on the ground.
Pressure is mounting as the mid-term evaluation of the first European University Alliances is approaching and EU member states in Council are finalising their conclusions on the future of the European Universities Initiative. Those conclusions will come in May, then at some point this year decisions will have to be made about how to further implement the action under the new generation of EU funding programmes: Will there be calls for new alliances in 2022 or will the programme support the existing ones if they are assessed positively, or both? While many alliances are just at the beginning of developing deeper and stronger forms of cooperation, they are facing high political expectations to deliver on a multitude of goals. This is a good time to remind all stakeholders to keep a balanced approach and look at the future of the European Universities Initiative in a holistic way. This means taking into account political ambitions, systemic considerations, and - first and foremost - the concerns of the universities on the ground.
Political ambitions first expressed through the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron in September 2017 and then by the heads of states and governments at the Gothenburg summit in December 2017 created the momentum. In record time, this enabled the European Commission in to set up a pilot scheme embedded into the ongoing Erasmus+ programme with the first call in 2019. Europe’s universities reacted with great enthusiasm as many of them were already engaging in transnational partnerships and saw the chance to deepen collaborations on another scale. Top-down policy level and bottom-up institutional dynamics seemed to match.
However, from the start of the initiative there was a certain tension between different goals at various levels: There were high-level political ambitions of using university alliances as tool for further European integration by creating transnational “lighthouse” institutions and connecting universities from all parts of Europe. There was also the aim of increasing the international competitiveness of European higher education by pooling resources. While many in the university world would agree to this in principle, they mainly saw the initiative as an occasion to deepen and accelerate cooperation for enhancing quality, particularly in learning and teaching as confirmed by the results of an EUA survey in 2020. High ambitions created high expectations from both the policy level and the university level.
At the policy level, the initiative put higher education back on the EU agenda at the highest level. For higher education policy and the university sector, it was also a new opportunity to address some of the remaining obstacles towards transnational university collaboration that still exist in Europe - even after 20 years of work in the Bologna Process. To date, 41 alliances have been created including 284 higher education institutions (of which 215 are EUA members) from 31 European countries.
The European Universities Initiative has become the flagship initiative for universities in the context of the European Education Area (EEA) and the new European Research Area (ERA) as described in the related Commission Communications from September last year. Alliances under the initiative are supposed to be testbeds for innovation, new tools and policy solutions. The political discourse has changed slightly since 2017-2018 and the focus is now shifting from education and universities being seen as a tool for European integration, to being an enabler for the digital and green transitions and Europe’s way to “build back better” after the Covid-19 crisis.
At the university level, rather, the alliances had just started their work when the pandemic hit and today continue in challenging circumstances. While there might be a temptation to add new policy goals to the initiative now due to the changed context and the newly emerging challenges, it is important to focus on what is needed now to move forward and make things work for the universities engaged in the alliances and the European system as a whole.
One and a half years since the very first alliances started is a tiny amount of time for such ambitious projects in normal times and even more so in the middle of a pandemic. It is too early to assess if the goals at various levels have been reached. However, already now many of the existing obstacles that EUA has pointed to in the past have become even more tangible and visible through the alliances. They are often linked to divergent and/or restrictive national regulations, (for example regarding accreditation of programmes, notably interdisciplinary programmes; the use of foreign languages in degree programmes; and the duration or number of ECTS for a degree/course - just to name a few), administrative rules or organisational cultures.
While universities in the alliances are working to deliver, it is time for real commitment and action from member states to improve the framework conditions. The focus must be on removing these obstacles to transnational collaboration and working with universities to find solutions at the level where the difference can be felt. The alliances have revealed these issues again, but at a larger scale, and we must remember that they exist also for universities that collaborate beyond the European Universities Initiative.
While new solutions need to be found, existing tools such as those developed in the Bologna Process should be considered. The momentum, the enthusiasm and the urgency created by the European Universities Initiative provides a window of opportunity to overcome these barriers for the sector as a whole and work towards a level playing field across Europe. This is where the EEA and ERA can make a difference.
Regarding the funding of the alliances, the discussions on synergies of EU funding programmes is crystalising in the European Universities Initiative, as the search widens for additional resources to support the work of the alliances. EU funding alone is unlikely to do the trick, and the level and criteria for national co-funding for the alliances are very different across Europe. It remains to be seen how this will be addressed in the Council Conclusions in May and whether there will be a stronger commitment from the member states to step up their support. Simplifying access and use and the combination of different EU funds, as well as with national funding, is a concern for many universities engaged in European collaboration. It is generally an important topic for the implementation of the new generation of EU programmes, which are just starting this year. While the alliances might test practical approaches to synergies, participation in the European Universities Initiative should not become the entry ticket needed for universities to obtain easier access to EU funding and frameworks.
The future of Europe’s universities is networked. Bilateral and multilateral collaborations among universities, and with other partners, within one region or country, across Europe and globally, are key for universities to fulfil their missions in service to society. For universities to develop such collaborations, they need the right framework conditions, time, flexibility, enabling frameworks and adequate investments. They also need the possibility to define the goals of the collaborations with the academic community along the lines of what makes sense for their academic missions. This is true for the alliances under the European Universities Initiative, as it is for others.
Therefore, rather than overburdening the initiative with additional and at times conflated goals, it is important to keep a balanced approach. The alliances need leeway to do their work. This is the occasion to improve regulatory and funding frameworks for all universities across Europe that want to engage in various models of deeper collaboration to enhance their missions.
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All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.