Macron’s vision of universities networks moves forward

European university networks are now moving forward to build ‘Networks of European Universities’ along the lines French President Emmanuel Macron proposed at his Sorbonne speech in September 2017.

The first such ‘4EU-alliance’ was signed in Heidelberg last month. Other stakeholders are sending position papers to the European Commission webpage.

The European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU), comprising 12 members, including the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the University of Twente in the Netherlands, Linköping University in Sweden and Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, with a secretariat in Brussels and its own webpage, has endorsed Macron’s vision for a network of European universities.

”The development of several European Universities Networks (EUNs) offers an excellent opportunity to bring the best of individual universities in Europe together,” ECIU says in its position paper published last week.

The position paper coincides with the European Commission’s multi-annual budget proposal 2021-27, which calls for a doubling of the Erasmus+ budget to €30 billion (US$36 billion).

ECIU said that the Macron’s proposal for European Universities Networks is an important opportunity to catalyse educational innovations such as student-centred learning, flexible education and the European curricula.

ECIU has presented 10 criteria for maximising the impact of the EUNs and five action lines on how these criteria can be fulfilled by funding opportunities.

A strong ambition is for high societal impact of educational investments and “to be internationally competitive in an ever faster developing world”. ECIU is further advocating experimentation with new organisational forms of collaboration, different delivery models of educational programmes and extended public-private partnerships.

Other criteria for enhanced European universities networks are the knowledge-triangle, mutual trust, openness to the world and open governance structures.

EUNs must not set an ideal number of partners and have commitment from all levels of the universities participating and be opened up for regional European Union funding for cross-European collaboration.

The five action lines proposed for funding are mobility, collaborative projects, joint curricula, training of leadership development and networking management.

The criteria proposed by ECIU and the five actions proposed for funding are exemplified by ECIU’s experiences over the past two decades, including a staff exchange programme, a joint research mobility programme and ECIU’s leadership programme.

ECIU, however, is not addressing any of Macron’s concrete proposals such as his call to have 50% of European students participating in mobility schemes of at least six months before 2024, that every student shall be taught in at least two languages, that there should be a common “European semester” and the issuing of “real European diplomas”.

Not one word is said about the possible transfer of authority in higher education matters under Macron’s vision from the European Commission to the member states, where the cooperation is needed to realise his aim of mutually recognisable secondary school diplomas in order to enhance academic mobility between the participating universities in his network design.

Is the ECIU position paper hence another self-promoting example of networking response to Macron’s vision for a stronger Europe? A kind of ‘old wine in new bottles?’

European network responses

University World News has examined some other networks and their stand on Macron’s vision.

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities in March published a position paper entitled “Shaping European Universities of the Future”, addressing Macron’s vision through clear strategic objectives, committed leadership, long-term commitment and bottom-up initiatives. The Guild is supporting the 2024 goal of 20 networks of European universities set up by a bottom-up principle of comprising ”four to six member universities”.

The Guild “embraces the vision of creating new and transformative strategies of ‘universities of the future’”, that can act as role models contributing to the modernisation of the university sector in Europe. In addition, it will be crucial that “the networks are ambitious and innovative in developing deeper collaboration, while remaining open and transparent, to maximise their outreach and impact”.

The Guild did not address the Macron proposal of setting up a mechanism for harmonising European diplomas, but did advocate the use of indicators to measure network successes.

The Coimbra Group in February called for urgent clarification of the concept of ‘European universities networks’ stating that the word ‘network’ should be replaced by ‘consortia’ or ‘alliances’ to avoid confusion with existing larger associations of universities.

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) in February warned against "mediocrity" in EU university networks. LERU Secretary-General Kurt Deketelaere said in an article in Times Higher Education that he hoped the selection of European universities networks would illustrate the excellence of European universities in research, education and innovation, and that therefore the EU support should not go to consortia that were just ticking the right policy or political boxes in the selection procedure, without being an ambassador for Europe's excellence.

Deketelaere considers the pending proposals on networks, the student card, recognition of degrees, etc, as valuable but indicates that the European Commission's legislative powers and budgetary means in this policy field are limited.

In the short run, if realisable, the student card and mutual recognition of degrees would even be more influential than the networks, for which there will only be limited resources available in the short run, he said.

LERU will not transform itself into a ‘European universities network’ since it primarily aims at lobbying and best practice development, but supports the initiative to the extent it could allow existing collaborations of LERU members to get more funding, more visibility, more integration and legal personality.

The European Confederation of the University of the Greater Region (hereafter abbreviated to UniGR) said by setting the objective of creating around 20 European universities networks by 2024, Macron, in his September 2017 speech, and the European Council of 14 December 2017 have “breathed new life into the European Higher Education Area”.

UniGR is composed of six universities, Technische Universitat Kaiserslautern, University of Liege, University of Lorraine, University of Luxembourg, Saarland University and Trier University, located in the Greater Region on the border of four European countries (Germany, Belgium, France and Luxembourg).

UniGR has since 2008 pursued its ambition to develop a continuous and sustainable collaboration and to define a joint development strategy around projects with high added value. It now has a common legal structure and is developing its activity in both the fields of training and research.

The UniGR sees the ‘European universities’ initiative as an exceptional opportunity to strengthen the competitiveness of European higher education through targeted cooperation.

The Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Higher Education (SIU) said in a letter to the European Commission in March that as membership of the European universities networks will be available to a limited number of institutions, and the objectives are very ambitious, the commission could consider requiring existing cooperation between partners within Horizon 2020, Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees, or Erasmus+ Key Action 2 as a pre-requisite for applying.

SIU argued that proven results from previous cooperation would strengthen the potential impact of the networks.

It also said the projects should involve universities in at least three programme countries and there should be a restriction on the number of applications per institution. The projects should be “focused within a thematic area, but include multidisciplinary cooperation”.

Further developments

Thomas Jørgensen of the European University Association told University World News that the Macron initiative is important and that the issue now is whether the European Commission or member states will take the lead in taking it further.

Jørgensen argued on his blog page after Macron’s speech in September last year that his vision could be a way to give member states more leverage space in agenda-setting for higher education cooperation in Europe.

In March Science Business reported that a match-making between Sorbonne University, Heidelberg University, Charles University in Prague and the University of Warsaw – the European University Alliance – was signed as the first of several expected cross-border deals following Macron’s plan for European universities networks.

European Commission working on concepts

Head of Unit of Higher Education in the European Commission, Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, has confirmed to University World News that there is provision for position funding for ‘Macron initiatives’ in the proposed Erasmus+ budget for 2021-27, and work is underway to develop the concepts.

”We have set-up two consultative groups to co-create and co-develop the concept together (higher education institutions and student representatives plus experts from each member state) and opened a webpage inviting all stakeholders to contribute,” she said.

A pilot call will be launched this autumn under the Erasmus+ programme to test and further improve the concept before its mainstreaming under the next Multiannual Financial Framework, she added.

Rector of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, who was a founding member of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told University World News he believes the conceptual platform of this initiative is “not strong enough to merit an in-depth analysis”.

“I give my full support to President Macron when he underlines the need to build trust in a Europe that now stands as fragmented and embroiled in a crisis that in Macron’s words amounts to a ‘civil war’. I also agree that acquisition of two (or more) different languages will help remove misunderstandings and bolster trust across cultural and geographical boundaries,” Ottersen said.

“But Macron’s rather exclusive focus on language skills belies the complexity of trust and trust-building and risks detracting from the importance of other factors that erode trust and understanding. One such factor is the quality and integrity of national and supranational institutions – another and equally important factor is the stark inequities in the realms of economy and health – be it between or within the individual European nations.”

He said lack of social mobility is also an important issue that foments distrust.

The educational systems and the universities in particular serve important roles in addressing each of these issues and other factors that pertain to the social, economic and environmental sustainability in the Europe of tomorrow, he said.

“Macron's initiative must not be seen as a vote of no confidence to existing universities. New resources must be targeted at those academic environments that already excel in international exchange and high-quality education and research. We must build on what works.”