Second pilot on European Universities’ alliances launched

The European Commission launched a second pilot on the European Universities’ alliances on Tuesday as part of its call for proposals for the Erasmus+ programme for student and staff mobility and exchange.

The expected budget for Erasmus+ for 2020, the last year of the current programme, is over €3 billion (US$3.3 billion), an increase of 12% compared to 2019.

The European Union aims to create 35,000 opportunities for African students and staff to participate in the programme as part of the Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs.

Tibor Navracsics, European commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, said: “I am very pleased that in 2020 the European Union is set to invest more than €3 billion in Erasmus+. It will allow us to open up more opportunities for young Europeans to study or train abroad, enabling them to learn and develop a European identity.”

He added that it will also help to take the European Universities Initiative forward, showing the EU’s continued investment in the European Education Area.

“I am proud to see higher education institutions form strong new alliances, paving the way for the universities of the future, for the benefit of students, staff and society across Europe.”

However, the European University Association has warned that the money being made available via Erasmus+ will not be sufficient and is not intended to cover the cost of developing such alliances.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, policy coordinator at the European University Association (EUA), writing in University World News, warned: “It will be important for the EU, as well as individual countries, to find a balance between supporting such alliances and funding smaller scale collaboration projects that are in high demand under the current Erasmus+ programme.”

She said if too much funding was to be concentrated on a few alliances, this could hit resources in the higher education and research system as a whole.

“A ‘Matthew Effect’ of giving more to those who already have more should be avoided as it will not help to close the innovation gap within Europe.”

She said a key issue was the number of alliances and networks taking part in the European Universities Initiative compared to what is sustainable. Currently there are likely to be up to 40, double the 20 originally envisaged by both French President Emmanuel Macron when he championed the idea and the European Council, after the first two pilot calls.

First European Universities getting ready

The first 17 European Universities were selected in June 2019. They are in the process of starting their activities. The second call for proposals launched on Tuesday builds on this first test phase, which is intended to be about testing a wide variety of cooperation models.

The European Universities Initiative will then be fully rolled out and scaled up under the next Erasmus programme 2021-27.

The initiative was the focus of a European Commission event on 7 November 2019, where all the European Universities selected so far came together for the first time to exchange information and discuss the way forward with students, rectors and ministries responsible for higher education.

Other universities were also to be represented at the event for discussions on the future of higher education in Europe.

This event marked nearly two years since the European Council called on member states and EU institutions to start building a true European Education Area. The European Universities Initiative is a key pillar of this project.

At the end of June this year, the European Commission selected the first 17 European Universities, which are starting their joint activities this autumn.

The European Universities consist of “bottom-up networks of universities across the EU which will enable students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and contribute to the international competitiveness of European universities”, the European Commission says.

The networks are “transnational alliances that will become the universities of the future, promoting European values and identity, and revolutionising the quality and competitiveness of European higher education,” the European Commission says.

The intention is that alliances will:

  • • Include partners from all types of higher education institution and cover a broad geographic scope across Europe.

  • • Be based upon a co-envisioned long-term strategy focussed on sustainability, excellence and European values.

  • • Offer student-centred curricula jointly delivered across inter-university campuses, where a diverse student bodies can build their own programmes and experience mobility at all levels of study.

  • • Adopt a challenge-based approach according to which students, academics and external partners can cooperate in inter-disciplinary teams to tackle the biggest issues facing Europe today.

However, EURASHE, the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education, called for more diversity in the proposals for the second pilot.

In a statement it invited the commission to take “full advantage of the diversity of European higher education” and “take into account the specificities of universities of applied sciences (UAS) and other professional higher education (PHE) institutions that have emerged” since the first call.

The request amounted to a plea to make room for participation by UAS and other PHE institutions by making allowances for their particular constraints.

These include the difficulties the UAS may face regarding the requested students’ participation and engagement in the alliances due to the shorter period of time students spend in UAS in comparison with traditional universities and the specific profile of UAS students, many of whom study while already working in a profession, that could impact the desirable mobility.

EURASHE called on respective national, regional and local authorities to “consider providing a suitable financial and logistic support to UAS and other smaller institutions for the preparation of the alliances’ proposals and for helping ensure their sustainability after the end of the EU funding”.

The European Commission is hoping that the alliances will take a long-term approach, developing strategies for the next 20 to 30 years and with it a deeper level of integration than ever tried before.

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.

Alongside the call for proposals, the commission also published the Erasmus+ Programme Guide, providing applicants with details on all opportunities open to them in higher education, vocational education and training, school education and adult education, youth and sport under Erasmus+ in 2020.