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The future of Europe’s universities: opportunities and limits of alliances as testbeds

All universities need more autonomy to be innovative, not only those engaged in the European Universities Initiative. EUA expert Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik writes that limiting flexible collaboration options to just a few institutions may limit the innovation potential of the sector as a whole.

The European Universities Initiative is a unique opportunity to strengthen university cooperation in Europe in a time of tremendous challenges. Universities are both subjects to and shapers of future developments. With their missions in education, research, innovation and culture they hold the keys that might help humanity tackling the big challenges, but they cannot do this alone. Countering climate change, weakening democracies and increasing global tensions as well as using the opportunities that lie in new technologies and social innovation for positive change needs collaboration. Collaboration at various levels and with different partners, within one country or region, across borders in Europe and internationally is already a key feature of Europe’s universities. It is also at the heart of European University Association’s “Universities without walls – A Vision for 2030.

Collaboration serves different purposes, but it often has the goal of enhancing the quality of university missions. Collaboration is important for innovation, as it adds diversity in perspectives and approaches and also helps to pool resources.

Although international strategic institutional partnerships are not a new phenomenon, the European Universities Initiative is an occasion to further enhance and deepen university collaboration in a multilateral setting. Launched by the European Commission in 2018/2019, the initiative has fostered the emergence of by now 41 transnational university alliances involving more than 280 higher education institutions from 27 European Union Member States plus Iceland, Norway, Serbia, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The reasons why universities engage in such alliances are manifold, but they tend to reflect general internationalisation priorities of the institutions. They often include the aim of enhancing the quality through innovation in learning and teaching, foster synergies between university missions, build critical mass and increase the attractiveness and visibility of the institutions involved. While much has been done in just one to two years, it is important to bear in mind that building collaboration, especially at such a scale, always takes time, flexibility and continued support – not only, but even more in the midst of a pandemic.

Role models

The political pressure is high for the alliances to deliver quickly on their vision and objectives and beyond this to be role models for others or ‘test beds’ experimenting with new approaches. At policy level in some higher education systems, this already leads to attempts of creating exceptions for alliances from rules that otherwise continue to apply for other universities within the system. These exceptions deal for example with the language of instruction, the length of studies and programme accreditation regulations for joint programmes delivered in the framework of an alliance under the European Universities Initiative. At present, it is not clear why such flexibility would be limited only to joint programmes of these alliances rather than to all joint programmes. There can be merit in testing things before mainstreaming them, but only with clearly defined, time-bound criteria, ensuring accessibility and transferability to all those institutions that would wish to use it to further their work, guaranteeing a level playing field. Such experimentation clauses are already used in other policy fields such as the European Union’s digital and innovation policy, where so called regulatory sandboxes may be used for companies to test innovative technologies, products, services and approaches.

Innovation needs diversity. To meet the challenges and shape a positive future, it will be important to build on Europe’s strength in diversity of institutional profiles and approaches. This also means that institutions need collaboration frameworks that are supportive of this diversity and do not privilege one model over another. Currently around 5 per cent of Europe’s higher education institutions are engaged in alliances under the European Universities Initiative (according to the European Commission) and the European Commission aims at expanding it to 10 per cent.

Even then, it means that 90 per cent of Europe’s universities would not be engaged, but they collaborate in many other ways depending on their specific profile and mission. There is so far no reason to think that the outcomes of this are less innovative or needed than others. Limiting flexible collaboration options to just a few institutions in the long run may limit the innovation potential of the sector as a whole, and this would not be in the interest of society. Instead, reforming regulatory and funding frameworks to give more autonomy to all universities to be innovative would be important. This also includes refraining from too much top-down political steering, but rather focusing on supporting them in fulfilling their missions.

This article was originally published in “Th&ma Higher Education 2021-4” on 2 November 2021.

“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.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik is Policy Coordinator at EUA. In her position, she contributes to ensuring timely and coherent policy development in areas of interest for EUA and its members and coordinates work on cross-cutting topics such as the European Universities Initiative.

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