European Universities Initiative: EUA warns against top-down steering and calls for further action to remove barriers

18 May 2021

On 17 May 2021, the Education Ministers of EU member states adopted Council Conclusions on the European Universities Initiative. The Council Conclusions come at a crucial point as the mid-term evaluation of the first 17 alliances is approaching and important decisions will soon have to be made regarding the future roll-out of the initiative under the new generation of EU funding programmes.

EUA welcomes this support from the EU member states and reiterates that the political ambitions related to the European Universities Initiative must not overrule the strategic vision of the individual alliances. Instead, the alliances should be seen as a part of larger processes including the European Education Area (EEA), the European Research Area (ERA) and especially the Bologna Process. Furthermore, action is needed at various levels to remove remaining barriers and support diverse forms of deeper transnational university collaboration.

The Council Conclusions are an important step in constructing the future of the initiative. Expectations are high among both universities and policy makers. To date, 215 of the more than 840 EUA members are among the more than 280 institutions participating in the pilot phase. Many expect to use deeper collaboration for purposes such as enhancing the quality of learning and teaching, increasing the attractiveness of the institutions, boosting mobility, strengthening the links between university missions and many more as evidenced by the dedicated EUA survey in 2020.

As stated in the EUA position on the future of the European Universities Initiative, deepening transnational university collaboration has great potential to strengthen European higher education and research and their international competitiveness. As most recently evidenced by the pandemic, European collaboration and solidarity are of ever greater importance. Strengthening Europe’s innovation capacity, to which universities contribute greatly, will be crucial for recovery and for building a sustainable future.

EUA appreciates that several of the points from its position are considered in the Council Conclusions. These include the need for the initiative to encompass all university missions, foster cohesion within Europe and contribute to competitiveness. Moreover, the Conclusions also recognise the need for continued political and financial support to overcome barriers to transnational collaboration. They also point to the need for additional funding, including through synergies between different funding programmes and better alignment at the EU and national levels.

Avoid top-down steering

EUA is concerned by the number of policy goals and objectives that the alliances are asked to fulfil. The Council Conclusions include a list of 19 objectives, compiling those already in the pilot calls under Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, broadening some and adding further details. It is important to be realistic about what can be achieved during the pilot phase and with limited resources. Overloading the initiative and the universities involved with too many political goals bears the risk of diverting attention away from their core purpose of enhancing university missions through cooperation. It is important to keep a balanced approach in this regard, respecting institutional autonomy and academic freedom, as also underlined in the Council Conclusions.

Many of the broader objectives reflect issues important to universities across Europe, as outlined in EUA’s “Universities without walls – A vision for 2030”. Therefore, EUA would like to remind member states and the European Commission that the European Universities Initiative must be seen as an additional way to explore strategic cooperation, identify challenges and propose solutions alongside other types of existing collaboration. The European Universities Initiative is only one tool among many to achieve the university related objectives of the European Education and Research Areas.

Top-down steering should be avoided. The latter also applies as regards strong financial incentives for alliances to add additional partners to their collaborations, an idea recently put forward by the European Commission in the discussions on the future of the initiative. While EUA has argued for the initiative to be open to all types of university profiles and beyond the EU, the choice and the number of partners should be based on the specific strategic objectives of the individual alliances and their academic vision.

Provide enough leeway, time and resources

EUA underlines the importance of providing enough leeway, time and resources to those engaged in the European Universities Initiative. This will allow them to deepen their collaboration and pursue their strategic goals, as agreed in their joint vision. It is important to remember that this is an ambitious and complex endeavour requiring substantial adaptations at various levels. It is key that the collaboration is driven by the institutions themselves. This also applies to the testbed and role-model approach for the alliances, as mentioned in the Council Conclusions. Institutional collaboration, including under and beyond the European Universities Initiative, can bring about important innovations and it is therefore important to disseminate and share the benefits across the sector. However, a bottom-up approach is crucial in this regard and it is important to recall that innovation happens within the alliances, as well as with other types of collaborations. The academic project must remain at the heart of any collaboration for it to be sustainable and successful in the long run.

Proceed with system-level reforms

Support through necessary system-level reforms, the exchange of good practices and the removal of barriers, as well as adequate funding are crucial.

Decisions need to be taken soon regarding the use of funds available for the alliances under the new EU programmes in order to avoid a funding gap for the existing alliances after the pilot phase. Nevertheless, it will be important to conduct a proper evaluation of the European Universities Initiative at the level of the instrument after the pilot phase. This will ensure that it is fit for purpose in the long term.

In parallel, it will be crucial that all member states act on their commitments to further work with universities to continue removing obstacles to transnational collaboration and to work towards better compatibility of higher education systems across Europe – a clear goal of the Bologna Process. This must be done with a view to benefitting the sector as a whole and supporting the various means of collaboration.

EUA strongly welcomes the invitation by member states to engage in a dialogue about this together with universities, stakeholders and the European Commission. The Association reiterates that any discussions should take into account existing Bologna Process and ERA tools and cover all university missions. This must be done through a structured process linking the EEA, ERA and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in a coherent way, strengthening the processes and instruments that already exist, as well as their continued implementation.

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