Pioneering European Universities Initiative to move forward

The European Union reaffirmed its commitment to its flagship scheme, the European Universities Initiative (EUI) at a meeting of the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council in Brussels on 17 May.

Following the meeting, Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, described the EUI networks as pioneers when it comes to transforming higher education.

The EUI is the new network of 41 university alliances, drawing on 284 higher education institutions. Each alliance has five to nine members united by an overarching theme. It may also have associate partners in addition to full members enabling wider collaboration. These can be a wide range of organisations including NGOs, businesses and government agencies.

The impetus for the EUI came from French President Emmanuel Macron’s September 2017 Sorbonne University speech, where he set out his vision for a “fair, protective and ambitious Europe” underpinned by greater convergence and solidarity.

Macron stated that “the strongest cement that binds the European Union together will always be culture and knowledge”. He argued that the many languages of Europe should be made an asset, so that Europe is a place where all students can speak at least two European languages by 2024, and that instead of lamenting the divisions between nations, exchanges between them should be increased.

To realise this vision, Macron believed it was time to create “European Universities – a network of universities across Europe” that will be “drivers of educational innovation and the quest for excellence”.

Unfinished business

The idea of a European University isn’t actually new. A supranational university was first mooted in the late 1940s and various proposals were discussed among the founding members in the early years of the European Community.

However, none of these proposals came to fruition owing to a lack of consensus among member states over what form the university should take. Macron’s new networks of universities can be seen as a new way to realise a long-standing idea.

Macron’s idea was fully embraced by the European Commission and it moved quickly through the EU institutions.

In 2018 the main objectives for the new European Universities Initiative (EUI) were set as: first, promoting common European values and strengthened European identity through collaboration, and second, delivering a “substantial leap in the quality, performance, attractiveness and international competitiveness of European universities”.

Two rounds of calls, in 2019 and 2020, invited existing European universities to collaborate and produce proposals for networks to be funded by the initiative. The EUI is an innovative model of collaboration as it is a ‘network of networks’ – multiple unique alliances developed using a bottom-up approach, which are all members of a larger strategic scheme.

New networks

A network may be themed around a subject area, such as the EU4ART Alliance for Common Fine Arts Curriculum. However, the design of the selection criteria has meant a wide range of unifying themes can be seen among the selected alliances.

For example, the European University of the Seas is an alliance of six universities in coastal locations which are committed to more effective ocean governance and delivering the Sustainable Development Goals for the ocean, while the European University for Well-Being seeks to make a measurable impact on European citizens’ quality of life.

Some of the alliances are new, developed specifically for the funding call, such as the European University of Post-Industrial Cities, while others, such as Athena and Aurora, are existing networks that have sought EUI funding.

Each network receives up to €5 million (US$6 million) from Erasmus+ to support a range of activities. These include student and staff mobility, developing joint programmes, common infrastructure and shared governance and removing barriers to credit recognition.

In 2020 it was announced that each network would also receive up to €2 million of Horizon research funding. This has bolstered research within the networks, which were initially more teaching mission-orientated.

A prominent theme of EUI networks is the use of challenge-based education – a fashionable framework where learning is applied to solving real-world challenges – “where students, academics and external partners can cooperate in interdisciplinary teams to tackle the biggest issues facing Europe today”.

In fact, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities made challenge-based education the theme of their whole network.

One highly serendipitous feature of the EUI proposals has been the use of virtual mobility, long before pandemic lockdowns were a thing. For example, the UNITE! University Network for Innovation, Technology and Engineering has, as one of its five deliverables, the creation of a “virtual campus that includes a platform for digital mobility, virtual spaces and online tools”.

The EUI funding calls placed great importance on ‘embedded mobility’ where at “least 50% of the students within the alliance should benefit from such mobility, be it physical, virtual or blended”, and this is reflected in the operations of the new networks.

UK involvement

As the United Kingdom hadn’t yet fully departed the EU when the EUI was being rolled out, UK universities were eligible to join network bids; an opportunity denied to Swiss universities that wanted to be involved. This resulted in UK universities being members of seven networks.

The UK is now a third country and the Brexit settlement for higher education looks a little incoherent. UK universities in EUI networks now participate from outside the EU in a scheme designed to strengthen the social solidarity of the regional bloc – the same bloc UK voters chose to leave.

The politics of this might be a little odd, but for universities this situation is perfectly feasible. Modern universities are adept at managing the membership of multiple collaborations and exchanges with differing rationales at any one time. Moreover, having one UK member in several networks is highly unlikely to derail the wider purpose of the EU’s project.

Future plans

The conclusions of the 17 May council meeting mean the EUI carries on as before. Although this provides continuity for the scheme, some will argue it is not enough. This is because, compared to the money being spent on innovations in higher education in China and the United States, the EUI is operating on relatively small sums which are spread quite widely.

For example, the League of European Research Universities argues “that to realise the full potential of the EUI and make the efforts put into it by the universities and the alliances so far worthwhile, more time, more support and more funding is needed”.

Looking forward, the commissioner said, following the council meeting, that it is crucial for the EU, member states and stakeholders in higher education to work together to create the necessary conditions for the sector to become more interconnected, innovative, inclusive, digital and sustainable.

The continued commitment of the European Commission to financially support the EUI through Erasmus+, with a supplement from Horizon research funding, was also reaffirmed.

Commissioner Gabriel noted that obstacles still remain when universities work across borders which need to be removed and briefly mentioned the possibilities of the EU offering cooperation opportunities to those outside the bloc.

The commissioner also outlined future plans for the new European Diploma and highlighted the need for shorter forms of learning to support lifelong learning, such as micro-credentials. To address the growth in micro-credentials, European standards such as micro-certificates were discussed to ensure the transparency and portability of these qualifications.

Andrew Gunn is a research affiliate in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Australia. At the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, he completed a scholarship-funded doctorate in the School of Politics and International Studies, followed by an externally funded postdoc in the School of Education. Previously, he was Worldwide Universities Network visiting researcher at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Follow him on Twitter: @ASGunn