Networks eye bid for ‘European University’ status

The EuroTech Universities Alliance will launch on 1 January with six members, following the addition of the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, announced at the EuroTech high-level event in Brussels on 6 November.

The other members are Eindhoven University of Technology, the Technical University of Denmark, the Technical University of Munich, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and École Polytechnique in Paris.

The Brussels conference, arranged by the Representation of the Free State of Bavaria to the European Union, was focused on the theme, "University Alliances – Modernisation. Excellence. Societal Impact" and represented a further step towards building a consortium application for the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron which aims to create ‘European Universities’ of the future.

The Macron initiative, endorsed by the Council of Ministers and the EU Heads of the States and Governments on 14 December 2017, aims to establish by 2024 some 20 ‘European Universities’ across the European Union "that will enable students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and contribute to the international competitiveness of European universities.”

In October this programme issued a call for proposals in the Erasmus+ programme, inviting bidders to propose consortia for participating in the ‘European Universities’ initiative and to deliver proposals for ‘Knowledge Alliances’.

The Erasmus+ call has an allocation of €30 million (US$34 million), under which any one consortium can receive up to €5 million for three years of operation. Some six networks will be selected to participate in the piloting round starting next year.

The call underlines the need for the project to address and progress towards the long-term vision of linking higher education to research and innovation and to develop "new innovative structural models” that "can work towards a European added value, notably through its transnationality, in particular for students".

The award criteria allow for countries outside the European Union to be associate members of the bidding consortium, but they cannot receive any funding.

Call for Swiss participation

Foreseeing that the pilot programme would be restricted to Erasmus+ countries, the EuroTech Universities Alliance and Eucor, the European Campus, teamed up this summer to send a joint open letter to the European Commission on 25 June requesting Switzerland’s eligibility in the programme.

"As you are aware, Switzerland is regularly quoted as Europe's leader in innovation and home to some of Europe's most prestigious higher education institutions in terms of innovative education, excellent research and services to society,” the letter said.

“We believe it is crucial to continue promoting cooperation with Swiss institutions at the highest level from the outset, in order to keep building a successful European Education Area and to achieve the longer-term goal of the ‘European Universities’.”

Participants and keynote speakers at the Brussels conference included Jean-Eric Paquet, director general of research and innovation at the European Commission; Themis Christophidou, director general for youth, sport and culture; and the presidents of the EuroTech member universities.

At the event, President of École Polytechnique, Paris, Eric Labaye was introduced as one of the newest presidents to join the alliance.

Strategic move

The EuroTech Universities Alliance said the Technion was "a perfect match to join – and boost – this joint endeavour, given its scientific excellence and vibrant innovative ecosystem boasting 84 European Research Council grants in the EU's Framework Programme 7 and Horizon 2020 research programme, as well as 90 spin-off companies."

Through this move, the consortium is taking another step to remind the European Commission that European networking, including the networks envisaged under Macron’s vision, should not be confined to the member states only.

The absence of a United Kingdom member in the EuroTech Universities Alliance raises the obvious question of whether UK institutions will be included in consortia despite UK withdrawal from the EU expected in March next year.

Tiny budget

Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), said he hopes the Macron consortia will be models of excellent research and innovation, but the selection criteria are no guarantee for this.

Elaborating to University World News, he said the budget is “peanuts”, working out at €330,000 per university per year and is almost exclusively earmarked for cooperation not research. But he also points to the lack of access for Swiss institutions and post-Brexit for UK institutions. The geographical balancing, as also advocated in recent discussions about Horizon Europe, is also a weakness, he believes.

He said within LERU, the Eucor initiative of the universities of Strasbourg and Freiburg is the “perfect illustration of what the European Commission is aiming at”. Other members have set up other small networks (such as the KU Leuven network and the Sorbonne network).

“My general advice to universities is that unless you already have a small integrated network of universities (with integration primarily on educational activities), it is better first to invest in getting to know each other, set up a number of activities, and apply at a later stage (2021 or later) when the success rate is going to be higher and more money will be available.”

Creating an ‘elitist’ system

However, Adam Gajek, president of the European Students’ Union (ESU), told University World News the ESU is concerned that the Macron initiative will create a two-tiered elitist system, where non-university institutions and less well-known or well-funded universities are left behind – as well as the students who attend them.

“We also believe that the networks should be open to all European Higher Education Area countries, and not only to the EU member states,” he said.

“European initiatives should be based on inclusion and this initiative may not be inclusive for students, higher education institutions with smaller budgets and those from countries or regions which are not overperforming in innovation or internationalisation. And such institutions need these networks the most.”

But University of Oslo Rector Professor Svein Stølen welcomed the notion that ‘European Universities’ will become flagships in the European Higher Education Area.

"European higher education policies are now speeding up. Higher education is in principle the domain of the nation state, and the quest for increased harmonisation in Europe has [until now] been an intergovernmental process outside the EU system,” he told the newspaper of Oslo Metropolitan University Khrono, referring to the Bologna Process.

EU ‘engaged’ in HE policies

“We now see that the EU to a larger degree is engaged in European higher education policies, and several of our consortium partners have strong backing from their national authorities in this process," he told Khrono.

"The EU is now looking at higher education as a central area for the strengthening of European identity and as a value platform, and hence to contribute to the European knowledge economy and increased employment," he said.

His university is a member of another consortium created to apply for the Macron network, announced on 12 November. It claims to enable University of Oslo students to “become Europe students in 2022, simultaneously inscribed in Paris, Berlin and London".

This is because in addition to the University of Oslo, the five other universities developing the consortium are King’s College London in the UK; Paris Diderot University, France; Aarhus University, Denmark; Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany; and Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

The University of Oslo would not be able to receive money from the European pilot grant but hopes the Norwegian minister will make funds available.

This report was corrected on 20 November to indicate that Eric Labaye is one of the newest presidents to join the EuroTech Universities Alliance, rather than president of the alliance.