The long, problematic road towards a European University

At present, 54 proposals have been submitted to the pilot European Universities Initiative. The initiative stems from French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for the creation by 2024 of 20 ‘European Universities’, supported by the Gothenburg summit of European leaders in December 2017.

The initiative builds on a long history of attempts to create a European university. Will this project be more successful than the previous ones?

A German-French debate

The attempt at a supranational university in Europe is as old as the European Community itself. The idea for such a university can be traced back to the first meeting discussing the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community in 1955.

There German representatives presented the idea for a European university, spurred by an interest in revitalising post-war national universities and sciences. A supranational European university functioning as a flagship for research and innovation (and competing with United States institutions) would thus serve a national purpose as well as further develop European culture and scholarship.

Following 1955, the European university idea was taken up by French authorities, who included it in the Euratom treaty, thereby linking the university to a nuclear energy research and training centre. This proved somewhat controversial, but following additional negotiations, the European university remained in the Euratom treaty when it was signed in 1957.

In this way, the European university became untethered from the broader European Community (EC) and was instead linked primarily to innovation and development rather than European cultural integration. This tension, between a Europe united through culture and a Europe united in development, has followed the university project ever since.

In fact, the Euratom treaty settled nothing and negotiations over the European university continued. Indeed, the fault lines set by German and French representatives shaped multiple exchanges among many actors; would there be a comprehensive university or a small and specialised institution?

The French resisted not only the scope of the university but also its governance, reflecting broader concerns about EC control over higher education and culture. However, a brief shift in the French position was driven by a desire for a centre for the study of nuclear science to be integrated within a French institution and for a European institute (supported by EC subsidies) in France itself.

Further, the promotion of the French language and France’s status was sought through these initiatives. The coordination of relevant courses and degrees, however, was imagined to be regulated through an intergovernmental body.

While French authorities reverted back to their original position, the outline they had developed facilitated the 1959 proposed institutional model of the European University as a postgraduate institution focused on the humanities and European area studies. It would enrol about 500 students from across the European Community with limits on any one nationality.

Further, the university would support all of Europe through exchanges and research. Attached to the university proposal was also a mechanism for national institutes to obtain EC funding and a framework for cooperation between other European universities.

The European University Institute

The 1959 proposal for a European University encountered opposition, led by French representatives, for another decade. During this time Italian authorities, long supporters of the university project, successfully advocated for the future university campus to be built in Italy. This also appeased the French view that states, rather than the EC, had purview over higher education.

Finally, a humanities-focused doctoral institute located in Florence was authorised in 1971 and founded in 1972. (For a detailed account of negotiations see Anne Corbett’s 2005 book Universities and the Europe of Knowledge).

It is hard to reconcile the initial proposal for a full university filled with the best European minds with the results of 15 years of negotiation and conflict. Indeed, it was not conflict about the nature of the academics that was the primary source of conflict, but rather concern about an institutional design that reached beyond its purview, treading on national rights and culture and stretching limits of European cultural integration.

In the final analysis, the European Union Institute (EUI) was hampered by its very structure; the four departments of the institute (political and social science, history and civilisation, economics and law) could only promote that which was philosophically European.

Without a broad academic base and the ability to pursue cutting-edge research, the EUI could never truly promote European development or attract the best minds from the continent. Simultaneously, given its expressly pro-European stance, it was aligned with the EC and its detractors characterised it as a political tool.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology

Decades later, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, presented the idea of a supranational university again. His 2005 proposal for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) was meant to create an institution that would do for the bloc what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had done for research and innovation in the US.

However, heightened tensions around national and European interests left countries afraid of ‘brain drain’ and a dilution of their national brands by a new, competitive European institution. Further, there was concern about the layers of bureaucracy such an initiative would create, and, in light of these issues, the proposed project found no nation-state champions.

In short, it was decided that no university would be created. Instead a collaborative framework for existing institutions was developed through Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs). The lack of a physical institution guaranteed that the EIT would not compete with existing universities.

As a final assurance, the EIT would not offer independent degrees, but instead joint degrees would be offered by the KIC in some circumstances. While the work of the EIT can ultimately benefit all of Europe, it does not reflect shared culture or experience, only a shared need for economic advancement.

The European Universities Initiative

In a sense, Macron’s European Universities Initiative builds more on the EIT than on the original attempts for a European University. The political lessons learned from previous initiatives seem to have been taken into account: creating one European University is not realistic in the contemporary political environment where competing interests are constantly in conflict.

At the same time, like the EUI and EIT, the present initiative is a compromise both in structure and funding, which underscores questions about its impact. Will the resulting European Universities Initiative facilitate integration in the region, be strongly positioned against international competitors (as Macron has advocated) and concurrently align with the internal European agenda(s)?

Time will tell if these networks will become flagships for research and innovation, as intended in the 1950s.

Elizabeth Orr is a student in the MA in International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. Email: Lisa Unangst is a doctoral candidate at the same institution. Email: Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Email:

Hans de Wit has issued a call to readers and contributors to
University World News to send him their essays of between 800 and 1,200 words on what went well and what went wrong in internationalisation of higher education over the past 25 years. This is one of the essays he has received. He will select one essay to be published by University World News and at the end of 2019, will bring all these essays together in a book.