First 17 European Universities’ alliances announced

The European Commission has announced the first 17 projects that will receive funding for a three-year pilot under the prestigious European Universities Initiative funded by the Erasmus+ programme.

Out of 54 applications received, 17 European Universities’ alliances involving 114 higher education institutions from 24 European Union member states were selected based on an evaluation carried out by 26 independent external experts, including rectors, professors and researchers, appointed by the commission.

‘European Universities’ are cross-border alliances of higher education institutions from across the EU that share a long-term strategy and promote European values and identity.

The initiative is designed to significantly strengthen mobility of students and staff, and foster the quality, inclusiveness and competitiveness of European higher education, the European Commission says.

European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracsics said: “I am pleased to see the ambition of the first 17 European Universities, which will act as role models for others across the EU. They will enable the next generations of students to experience Europe by studying in different countries.

“I am convinced that this initiative, a key building block of the European Education Area, will be a real game changer for higher education in Europe, boosting excellence and inclusion.”

The selection of European Universities – from networks of European higher education institutions – was announced on 26 June. It includes a broad range of higher education institutions from across the EU, from universities of applied sciences, technical universities and universities of fine arts to comprehensive and research-intensive universities.

Interestingly, only two United Kingdom universities number among the 114 members of the alliances selected.

The selected alliances are:

  • • UNA Europa (1EUROPE)
  • • The 4EU+ Alliance (4EU+)
  • • ARQUS European University Alliance (ARQUS)
  • • CHARM European University (CHARMEU)
  • • CIVICA – The European University in social sciences (CIVICA)
  • • CIVIS – A European civic university alliance (CIVIS)
  • • European University for Smart Urban Coastal Sustainability (CONEXUS)
  • • ECIU University (ECIUn)
  • • European Digital UniverCity (EDUC)
  • • European Partnership for an Innovative Campus Unifying Regions (EPICUR)
  • • Alliance for common fine arts curriculum (EU4ART)
  • • European University Alliance for Global Health (EUGLOH)
  • • European Universities Transforming to an Open, Inclusive Academy for 2050 (EUTOPIA)
  • • Fostering Outreach within European Regions, Transnational Higher Education and Mobility (FORTHEM)
  • • The European University of the Seas (SEA-EU)
  • • University Network for Innovation, Technology and Engineering (UNITE!)
  • • Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE).

Towards inter-university campuses

‘European Universities’ will become inter-university campuses around which students, doctoral candidates, staff and researchers can move seamlessly. They will pool their expertise, platforms and resources to deliver joint curricula or modules covering various disciplines, the commission says.

These curricula will be very flexible and will allow students to personalise their education, choosing what, where and when to study and get a European degree.

European Universities will also contribute to the sustainable economic development of the regions where they are located, since their students will “work closely with companies, municipal authorities, academics and researchers to find solutions to the challenges their regions are facing”, the commission argues.

In total, a budget of up to €85 million (US$97 million) is available for the first 17 ‘European Universities’. Each alliance will receive up to €5 million over the next three years to start implementing their plans and pave the way for other higher education institutions across the EU to follow. Their progress will be closely monitored.

This first call – together with a second one to be launched this autumn – will test different models to implement the new concept of European Universities and its potential to boost higher education. For the next long-term EU budget running from 2021-27, the commission proposed to fully roll out European Universities under Erasmus+, with a significantly increased budget.

While some alliances are comprehensive and cover all disciplines, others are for example focusing on urban coastal sustainability, social sciences or global health. Each alliance is composed on an average of seven higher education institutions from all parts of Europe, leading to new partnerships. This reflects the distribution of applications received from the various countries.

Political impetus

Political support for the initiative has been growing since French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at the Sorbonne University in Paris in September 2017, called for the creation by 2024 of 20 “European Universities”.

He proposed a “network of universities across Europe with programmes that have all their students study abroad and take classes in at least two languages”.

These European Universities, he said, would also be “drivers of educational innovation and the quest for excellence”.

The European Commission proposed this initiative to European Union leaders ahead of the Gothenburg Social Summit in November 2017.

It was endorsed by the European Council in December 2017, which called for the emergence of at least 20 European Universities by 2024, and is part of the European Commission’s push towards establishing a European Education Area by 2025, which would include mutual recognition of school and university diplomas and a general network of European universities.

Fears of Brexit and rising populism

It is an idea that has been given added impetus by fears that Brexit and rising populism across the European continent would undermine the future of the EU.

A European official close to the initiative told this writer earlier this year that the objectives are to “make European universities more competitive internationally, compared with the best of the US and Asia for instance, but also to strengthen the sense of common European values and a common European identity”.

The idea is that the European Universities will comprise institutions from right across Europe, will focus on a long-term strategy for “sustainability, excellence and European values”, will offer student-centred curricula jointly delivered across an “inter-university” campus at all study levels, and will take a “challenge based approach” in which students, academics and external partners can cooperate in cross-disciplinary teams to tackle the biggest issues facing Europe today, according to the commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture.

Whereas existing networks tend to take a short-term approach of working together on a particular project for three to five years, the European Commission is hoping the European Universities will develop strategies for the next 20 to 30 years and develop a deep level of integration.

This could mean students attending parts of their degree physically or virtually in different institutions within the network. It could also mean institutions developing complementary curricula and even complementary facilities for research.

It is believed that this level of cooperation makes systematic recognition of partner institution’s qualifications essential, and that the European Universities Initiative will prove a catalyst for mutual recognition and greater cooperation across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) as it develops.

European University Association President-elect Michael Murphy strongly supported the idea of deep transnational networks at the Bologna Process 20th Anniversary Conference earlier this week.

“We must design a comprehensive system with all of our universities in deep transnational networks, perhaps 100, harvesting and coordinating excellence across our continent,” he stated in a speech at the opening of the conference.

“Deep networks would inevitably simplify the attainment of the traditional Bologna Process goals. Networks will require new transnational academic governance models, new funding arrangements and challenging institutional cultural changes.

“This is a big political challenge, one first likely addressed within the EU, but where the EHEA will play a key role in including the whole of Europe in its ultimate design.”

Developed together with member states, higher education institutions and student organisations, the concept of the European Universities attracted applications from 54 alliances involving more than 300 higher education institutions from 28 member states and other Erasmus+ programme countries. They replied to an Erasmus+ call on ‘European Universities’ launched in October 2018.

The €60 million originally set aside for this new Erasmus+ initiative has been increased to €85 million, allowing for the funding of 17 alliances rather than the 12 initially foreseen.

‘Laboratory on the future of universities’

Professor Peter Lievens, vice rector at KU Leuven and coordinator of the 1EUROPE project, whose universities’ staff and student communities approach half a million strong and count millions of digital learners, said: “We are honoured to be among the first European Universities selected and are committed to shaping the future of higher education in Europe.”

The 1EUROPE project plans to establish a “laboratory on the future of universities”, to generate new concepts for international education and research, integrating them across the seven partner institutions and also fostering their transfer to other institutions.

“UNA Europa [1EUROPE] will create a university of the future that is not only international and innovative, but also open and inclusive,” says Professor Alessandra Scagliarini, vice rector at Università di Bologna and current chair of the UNA Europa board of directors.

“Our institutions each have exemplary initiatives in civil society engagement, but through the 1EUROPE project, we will bring this to a European scale.”

The Right Honourable Baroness Catherine Ashton, chancellor of the University of Warwick and former first vice president of the European Commission, said Warwick and the five other European universities in EUTOPIA, another successful bidder, are determined to develop an open, collaborative, cross-border academic community.

“Universities across the continent must strive together to increase mobility between nations, use their combined expertise to address global issues, and offer fresh opportunities to improve the lives of European citizens,” she said.