Teaming up for joint digital transformations at European universities

Digitalisation permeates all areas of university life, and thrives on openness, interaction and fast-paced innovation. In this piece, Ronald Maier, a member of EUA’s new Digital Transformation Steering Committee, outlines how universities can jointly engage in digital transformations from the viewpoints of enablement, resilience, efficiency and care.

Networking is the founding idea for the internet, the basic medium of digitalisation. At the same time, the internet would never have become such a dynamic driver of science and innovation without connecting people and institutions around the globe. However, digital transformations are not limited to individual institutions. Changes are abundant and these dynamics are visible across the entire higher education system.


Scholars and students need to be able to continuously access, use – and co-design – cutting edge digital technologies in support of the entire research life cycle. First and foremost, this includes sharing insights on processes, methods, results and outcomes of research activities in teaching, learning and knowledge exchange with wider society. Achieving such objectives requires capacity building. The advancement of competencies is important not only for scholars, but also for the professional support staff that implement and operate services and infrastructure for scholars and students. For example, shared (research) data spaces could be among the core applications resulting from cross-university cooperation.

Contemporary research is accessible, comprehensible and reusable: through consistent implementation of the FAIR principles we could jointly create data ecosystems that take into account disciplinary specificities but are also inherently cross-disciplinary. Moreover, we will be able to set up suitable data analysis spaces for a fair, reciprocal, legally secure analysis of data with appropriate protection. Generally, it is high time to team up in order to enable and support all university members in gaining expertise to understand and shape digital transformations. At the same time, we need to expand universities’ capacities to implement digital innovations that enhance and expand their provision of services and infrastructure.


Digitalisation creates opportunities and expands our scope of action, but also entails risks and uncertainties. Here, resilience calls for a responsible, appropriate, safe and secure use of digital technologies and resonates with information security, data protection and digital sovereignty. The concept of digital sovereignty viewed from a university standpoint is not about the ideal of self-sufficiency as universities cannot themselves produce all the digital technology that they need, from chips and hardware, to networks, software and cloud offerings. Rather, universities will continue to strive for autonomy in the sense of strengthened capabilities to proactively develop their offerings and organisation and to respond to changes and threats in their digital environments.


Accordingly, when it comes to financing universities’ digital transformations, policy makers should design the additional budgets required with the key objective of conjointly devised and cooperatively usable results. Hence, we should prevent a replication of efforts that fails to achieve sustainable operating models. When it comes to digital infrastructure, cooperatively designed solutions should be taken into consideration wherever suitable. Universities should leverage synergies in the development of platforms and systems for transformative reorganisation and redesign of processes and practices that can be utilised in a modern, digitalised administration. However, universities are advised not to prioritise efficiency over enablement, resilience and care in the sense discussed here.


European universities advocate human-centred digitalisation in a European way, recognising our universities’ special role due to their diversity, wealth of experience and high potential for innovation. Here, digitalisation is characterised by respect for and responsibility towards all individuals in their diversity and the preservation and development of our cultural heritage. Therefore, the design of digital offerings should follow principles such as openness, participation, sustainability and inclusion.

European initiatives – connecting universities

Finally, some digital transformation processes are typically driven by platform providers, for example research, learning and sharing platforms. When taken up by large numbers of individual users, in our case primarily students and scholars, substantial network effects ensue. These users thus create value by sharing data and services leveraged by platform providers. Such developments present institutions, in our case universities, with special challenges with respect to their positioning towards those platforms that are important for students and scholars. Therefore, we promote the strengthening of European initiatives that focus on cooperative digital transformation processes considering the viewpoints of enablement, resilience, efficiency and care. An active community of experts in higher education can jointly drive efforts to assess future opportunities and challenges with regard to digitalisation for universities and strengthen the position of the university system in these transformation processes, as well as to help design appropriate activities to leverage the potentials in a coherent manner.

“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.

Ronald Maier

Ronald Maier is Vice-Rector for Digitalisation and Knowledge Transfer at the University of Vienna, Austria, and Professor of Information Systems at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. His research interests include collaboration engineering, connectivity, crowdsourcing and knowledge management. He holds a doctorate from WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management, Germany, and a habilitation degree from University of Regensburg, Germany.


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