Is European Universities Initiative helping to build EHEA?

The European Universities Initiative has released new energy both for the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), according to a new analysis.

The activities now underway in the European university alliances, notably the legal side of establishing common degrees and cultural factors like the stronger influence of the student movements in the northern part of Europe, will determine the way forward, says the study by Dan Andrée, a senior advisor at Karolinska Institute who represents the Stockholm Trio (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Karolinska Institute and Stockholm University).

Andrée has been working in Brussels for over three decades, notably as representative of Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency.

His analysis focuses on how the European Universities Initiative (EUI) has been received in Sweden compared to the larger countries on the Continent.

The study, “A European University – A renewal of education?”, has been written for the CALIE project, the Sweden-USA Project for Collaboration, Academic Leadership and Innovation in Higher Education, which is a collaboration between Lund University, University of Gothenburg, Stockholm University and Uppsala University and through joint workshops and seminars with Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington.

Andrée’s paper is going to be presented at a CALIE digital conference at Stockholm University on 18-19 May on “Academic Leadership and Strategic Renewal of Education in Challenging Times” and will be published in a book on “academic leadership in times of transformation”*.

European Commission as the driver

The paper builds on interviews with all 11 Swedish universities taking part in the initiative as well as other stakeholders in Sweden and at the European level.

The author states that the EUI alliances include most of the European Union’s high-ranking universities but, even more importantly, many regional and smaller universities and higher education institutions all over Europe, notably with a much wider participation compared to the Horizon 2020 programme.

“In this way this initiative seems to fill a gap in the ‘cooperation landscape’ in Europe,” he said.

Andrée also discusses how the EUI programme is revitalising the Bologna Process and positioning the European Commission as a driver towards ‘the European university’ by taking over the initiative proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017.

“The European Universities Initiative (EUI) is a new political initiative from the European Commission and is a strategic renewal of education in Europe. It represents a new departure in its explicit focus on promoting collaboration in education between European universities,” he said.

Andrée said the EUI has support from many large member states and many of the new member states and there is a clear majority for a continuation.

“The EUI has the potential to contribute to a strategic renewal of education and academic leadership in Swedish universities. The Swedish government, together with national stakeholders, needs to be more engaged at national and EU level in the development of the EEA [European Education Area], including the next step of the EUI during 2021-22,” he said.

He said the EUI is an important part of the European Commission’s proposal for the European Education Area (EEA), presented in the autumn of 2020 and laying out a pathway to achieving the EEA by 2025.

“The vision is a continent where spending time in another member state – to study, to learn or to work – has become the standard and where, in addition to one’s mother tongue, speaking two other languages has become the norm. A continent in which people have a strong sense of their identity as Europeans, of Europe’s cultural heritage and its diversity,” the author said.

University World News asked Andrée if he is optimistic that the EUI will contribute to realising the EHEA by 2025. He said: “I am always optimistic. In 1983 I was not allowed to join a conference on the first [EU] Framework Programme in Brussels as it was open only to the 12 European Community countries. We have since seen a remarkable development of research cooperation in Europe thanks to EU initiatives.

“That is why I am optimistic that the EU initiative on the EEA will make a significant difference regarding European cooperation on higher education.”

Swedish universities engaged

In the study, the author discusses how Swedish participation can be effectively used to impact upon the quality of both Swedish internationalisation and the quality of higher education more broadly and notably how the active participation culture of Swedish student unions might impact the alliances.

His point of departure is that Sweden is the most active participator in the EUI programme measured according to the proportion of universities taking part in the 41 alliances. Among the 34 countries in the programme, the participation rate is 5% to 10% of universities, but in Sweden – and also in Finland – 27% of the universities participate in the EUI.

However, although Nordic countries are collaborating in 34 out of the 41 alliances and in some of those more than one Nordic country is involved, they are only coordinating one alliance: The Circle U alliance is coordinated by the University of Oslo.

“In general, there is a lack of political engagement in Sweden,” Andrée argued. “We need much more engagement from ministries and ministers. We must be active in order to influence the future.”

He said ministries need to “talk” to stakeholders and universities. “In research and innovation, the ministries are much more involved at EU level.”

EUI including all of Europe

In table one in the appendix, Andrée gives an overview of the participation in EUI alliances across the 34 countries that are participating and relates this to the percentage of universities in each country participating.

He also lists the percentage share of funding for higher education institutions in Societal Challenges in Horizon 2020 and calculates a quota share for EUI in relation to Horizon 2020 incomes. From this he has gauged that the EUI is more successful with regard to participation all over Europe.

Concerning the countries with the most partners involved, it is not surprising to see Germany on top (participating in 35 alliances – with 12.5% of the 279 participating universities) and then France (32 alliances – 11.5%). Also participating in 10 or more alliances are Spain and Italy (both 24), the Netherlands (13), Sweden and Hungary (11), and Belgium, Finland, Poland, Portugal and Romania (10). Only Germany (9), France (8), the Netherlands and Spain are coordinating five EUI networks or more.

A comparison of this initiative with the calls in Horizon 2020 shows the relative total involvement of partners in the EUI compared to higher education or secondary institutions involved in the Societal Challenges part of Horizon 2020. The share in the EU13 countries is much larger in the EUI (22.6%) than in Horizon 2020 (4.6%).

For many participants, for example, in Germany and France, additional funding from the government has been encouraging universities to take part. In some cases the level of additional funding is as high as the funding from the EU.

In total, according to the European Commission, 21 member states have some kind of additional funding. By contrast, in Sweden, a very small amount has been made available from the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR). The high rate of coordinating alliances by France and Germany could possibly be explained by the active engagement of their governments including additional funding, Andrée says.

Issues for EUI next phase

Comments from the interviewed stakeholders indicate that the following issues or questions should be discussed ahead of the next EUI phase:

• The 41 alliances consist of 279 universities, representing around 5% of all universities or higher education institutions in Europe – and 27% of Swedish universities are participating. What is in it for the rest of the universities or students in Europe? Is there a need to extend this initiative to include more universities and, if so, how? New alliances? Different concepts?

• How should the debate on the EUI continue? At ministerial level? University level? Combined?

• What should the role of the European Commission be? Listen or push forward? Should the commission propose legislation in this area?

• Should future alliances include both education and research & innovation from the start rather than adding research?

• What is the experience of the geographical criterion, ie must every alliance include all regions in Europe? Should EUI be alliances for the high-ranking universities or more for smaller or regional universities?

• How should the international component (outside Europe) be taken into account in the future? How to involve Bologna countries outside the EU (Erasmus+ countries)?

• What are the advantages and disadvantages with very narrow topics in an alliance (with the risk of not involving the whole of the university)?

• How to involve students and student organisations more in the shaping of the alliances in the future?

Agneta Bladh, who was the Swedish government’s special investigator on higher education internationalisation in 2018-19, told University World News: “The EUI is an interesting approach for collaboration in higher education and thereby another, more structured form of internationalisation, even if this is limited to Europe.

“New forms of mobility are developed for students – and staff – and combined with joint development of courses and other collaborative initiatives, which might lead to new perspectives and higher quality.

“As I understand it, nearby regions are often involved, which will include more collaboration with local communities and enterprises, also between the involved countries.”

She said the specific issue with collaboration in higher education is that it has to be long-sighted in order to build joint courses and programmes. “A stable and constant collaboration assured by the leadership is therefore a necessity for higher education collaboration compared to research collaboration,” she said.

She said one of the main difficulties lies in connecting research, as many researchers find their collaboration partners among colleagues with similar interests and orientation, not as a result of institutional collaboration decided by their leadership.

“However, for scientific fields without an outspoken international collaboration agenda, the EUI might give new opportunities to enhance quality.

“The EUI is a new and comprehensive form of internationalisation. We have to await the experiences to know if this approach is a success or not for comprehensive internationalisation,” she said.

*Renewing Higher Education: Academic leadership in times of transformation, Sylvia Schwaag Serger, Anders Malmberg and Mats Benner (eds), with Mattias Goksör, Clas Hättestrand, Åsa Kettis and Teresia Rindefjäll, published by Lund University Press.