From international research into teaching collaboration

The three missions of universities in Europe are often described as learning & teaching, research and knowledge transfer. Although these three domains are intended to interact in the so-called knowledge triangle, they often seem to operate in parallel universes at institutional, national and European levels.

This is caused by funding patterns and incentives that do not interact.

Notably, however, there is an underused value in providing a bridge between the world of learning and teaching and the world of research, especially when it comes to supporting internationalisation. The question therefore is “How can research collaborations underpin more exchanges in teaching and learning?”

Research funding has grown very substantially over the past 20 years in European Union countries, from 1.77% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000 to 2.06% in 2017. The very positive development in funding for research both at national and European level has led to a great number of new research results in multiple areas.

However, has this also led to a visible spill-over effect in higher education?

Case study

Even though research cooperation is considered to be an important driver for internationalisation, our recent case study of the cooperation between Germany and Sweden seems to indicate that the intensity of research cooperation is not necessarily a good indicator of deep international collaboration in teaching and learning.

Germany and Sweden were two of the countries that invested the most in research in 2017, with 3.02% and 3.4% of GDP (Eurostat) respectively.

The two countries are key partners in many international research projects and the co-publication rate is very high, but this is not entirely reflected, for example, in the mobility of scientists or students from Sweden to Germany, in the participation of Swedish universities in Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships or in cooperation projects funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

In interviews with vice-chancellors and representatives from organisations supporting internationalisation in Sweden, we witnessed a strong commitment to facilitate a much closer bilateral cooperation and to develop the support needed to foster a spill-over effect from close cooperation in research to a variety of short educational offers.

At the European level, the new structure of the European Commission, with a commissioner responsible for ‘Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth’, has the potential to strengthen the knowledge triangle. Furthermore, the pilot European Universities Initiative presents a vision of how a coherent internationalisation and cooperation plan that balances the three missions of the university can bring the European Education Area to a new level.

Bilateral partnerships

Alongside other European programmes, a case can be made for bilateral activities. Again, if we take Sweden and Germany as an example, the potential for more intense collaboration is realistic. To unleash this potential, new formats for networking and topic-related exchanges would need to be developed. Blended learning scenarios and using the opportunities digitalisation offers for research-based education would be central elements.

In combination with intensive summer courses, industry placements or training sessions aimed at developing innovation skills, the dichotomy between teaching and learning on the one side and research on the other might be partially overcome. Projects funded within a bilateral programme could offer a format to experiment, ensure a faster transfer of results and support innovation, both in the public and the private sector.

Universities are training the next generation of scientists and the workforce of the future. Therefore, a variety of agile formats, with results that could possibly be scaled up at the European level, would be a necessary complement to European initiatives.

Should the interest formulated by policy-makers, funding agencies and university leadership in Sweden to engage with German universities be transformed into concrete cooperation-supporting activities, a unique opportunity to combine digitalisation, innovative teaching methods and joint research with innovation activities could emerge.

Given the shared values between the universities in Sweden and Germany and the daunting challenges our world currently faces, deepened bilateral cooperation in addition to targeted European programmes could provide success stories that have the potential to strengthen our whole continent.

Hanne Smidt is senior adviser at the European University Association (EUA) and Michael Hörig is head of the strategic planning division at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).