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Academic cooperation and geopolitics: European policy responses in a new world

As geopolitical tensions grow, the work of universities comes under pressure. This piece looks at academic cooperation in a new world and what policy makers and university leaders can do to respond.

In recent years, growing geopolitical tensions have led to a reconsideration of international academic cooperation. As a result, the relationships that universities forge around the world have come under the spotlight. In the United States, Chinese espionage has become a prominent topic, while in the European Union the quest for strategic and technological sovereignty has cast doubt on even cooperation with very close partners such as the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The new situation requires new responses from higher education institutions and policy-makers alike.

There is, and remains, a broad consensus in Europe that international cooperation strengthens the quality of university missions and society’s knowledge base in general. The current discussion, however, revolves around how much cooperation leads to dependence, particularly on technologies that are seen as strategically important. There are also concerns about how partners use technology in systems that do not share Europe’s civic values, with issues concerning mass surveillance and social control being particularly controversial in the European debate. The topic of academic freedom is likewise seen as a precondition for deep cooperation.

Practical implications

Over the past few months, the European University Association (EUA) has organised a number of webinars to facilitate a dialogue between EU policy-makers and universities about the practical implications of the new world. Representatives of the European Commission and individual universities have met to compare how European-level policies align with concrete issues in international cooperation.

The general policy response from the European Commission has been a “modulated approach” – meaning openness is the default option. However, there is an expectation for reciprocity and a level playing field from partners and, where values such as academic freedom or civil rights are not well protected, there is a likelihood that Europe may limit cooperation.

Universities have a strong wish to retain their various global links. However, there is a realisation that things have changed in recent years and that internationalisation at the institutional level must be embedded in policies that take into account both the great global challenges as well as risks linked to authoritarianism and geopolitical polarisation. This means, for instance, defining universities’ values, providing support and establishing processes for international cooperation, as a speaker from RTWH Aachen in Germany explained.

Managing risks

Part of this more nuanced attention to threats and opportunities involves articulating guidelines for managing risks in international cooperation. In Sweden, for example, universities have published “Guidelines for reflection on international academic collaboration”. These focus on awareness raising and capacity building within universities about acting responsibly in their partnerships. Similar documents exist in other European countries, such as the UK and the Netherlands (specifically for China). The European Commission will also soon publish European guidelines for countering foreign interference in research cooperation. The European guidelines will be explicitly state-agnostic, following the logic of the commission that Europe will work with any partner but must be able to modulate its partnerships and make them more or less intense. However, the EUA webinar on this topic included a poll of participants which showed that only a third had (or were aware of) such national and institutional guidelines.

One of the big underlying trends linked to this discussion is the growing split between the US and China and Europe’s place among the tensions. The Biden administration has brought the EU and the US closer together. This has been particularly visible in the creation of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, which aims to enhance the trade and technological leadership of both the EU and US. It is still to be seen what the role of academic cooperation might be within this structure. Old and new initiatives – especially when it comes to green technologies – make for strong bonds across the Atlantic. In addition, North America remains the most important region for European universities’ global cooperation, as was clear from the webinar dedicated to transatlantic relations.

A fine balance

Most of continental Europe has a lot fewer exchanges with the People’s Republic of China than, for example, the US or the UK – partly because universities in continental Europe depend less on international fees from Chinese students. However, China remains a valuable partner, as does the US. Universities will not want to choose between one or the other geopolitical bloc and, if the EU’s modulated approach is implemented carefully, they will not have to make that choice. If the EU and China agree on the roadmap on science and technology that is currently under negotiation, that will certainly represent a major step forward in the development of a balanced and differentiated European response to a new geopolitical situation.

The new year could see more steps being taken towards implementing European policy responses, including a European Science Diplomacy Agenda which is currently taking shape. While political discussions are ongoing, universities will continue to further international cooperation according to their own agendas. The discussion about international research policy in a new world is far from over.

This article was first published by University World News on 06 January 2022. 

“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.

Thomas Jorgensen

Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is Director of Policy Co-ordination at EUA. His responsibilities include ensuring coherent policies for universities as well as overall policy development and managing cross-cutting issues with policy relevance.

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