Is the European Universities Initiative inclusive?
The European Universities Initiative aims to significantly increase the integration of universities within the European university system. It involves cross-cutting academic and scientific cooperation and seeks to integrate education, teaching and outreach infrastructures and create and consolidate European consortia of universities so that they can compete in scale with the rest of the large universities and university systems around the world.
Its aims are enshrined in the so-called European Strategy for Universities. More specifically, the European Council Resolution of 26 February 2021 calls for the creation of a European Higher Education Area based on inclusion, innovation, digital competences, green commitment, international competitiveness and respect for ethical integrity.
It is also intended that the European Universities Initiative will eventually impact the European Higher Education Area, affecting the entire system. Unfortunately, however, things seem to be heading in a different direction.
Inclusion or exclusion?
During the two years of the pilot phase, a total of 41 alliances have been funded out of more than 110 proposals submitted. These alliances represent some 280 universities and higher education institutions in Europe – approximately 5% of those existing within the European Union. The budget allocated in the pilot phase – €283 million (US$336 million) – has been considerably increased in the new 2021-27 programme.
The new Erasmus programme for the same period, which includes the European Universities Initiative, has as one of its clear objectives the inclusion of individuals and institutions and also the creation and strengthening of a real sense of European citizenship.
The European Union, and more specifically the European Higher Education Area, are dealing with enormous challenges such as rising populism, the impact of Brexit and disaffection in general towards its institutions at a time when it is facing a two-fold crisis – of health and economics – as a result of the pandemic.
In this scenario, the European Universities Initiative could, to a certain extent, enable the creation of strong consortia at the European level. One of the main intentions of the initiative would be to create a new paradigm that would take university academic cooperation within the European Union to a new level.
At the end of the 2019-20 pilot phase, much of the European university system was anxiously awaiting the call for new alliances and an increase in funding. However, the latest news from the European Commission suggests that there will be no funding for new alliances during the first half of the new Erasmus Programme 2021-27.
From the second half onwards, there may be some funding available, but, according to the information currently available, this may be much less than that received by existing consortia to date. As an example, it is foreseen that the consortia which have already been funded will receive approximately €1,000 million over the next six years. This would mean an average of €24 million per European university.
By contrast, according to the information currently available, the European University alliances which have not yet received funding could find themselves fighting over a budget of approximately €190 million in the same period, with more than 50 European alliances competing for this.
The gap between the alliances that obtained funding in the first phase (during a test or pilot phase) and the alliances that might obtain funding in the future is, to say the least, enormous.
Is it possible to move towards a truly inclusive European space for institutions and the individuals in them through such a drastic funding differential based only on technical-economic criteria? Is this the type of institutional and individual inclusion that suits the current crisis Europe is facing?
Most of the non-funded alliances have been working together for several years already and have participated in numerous national and international calls for proposals, obtaining funding (although very limited in nature) for academic, teaching and research mobility or cross-cutting internationalisation projects from various sources.
These alliances could bring together at least 400 European universities and involve more than 1,000 higher education professionals directly in their day-to-day operations as well as impact more than six million students and more than 400,000 teachers, researchers and administrative staff.
Are we really moving towards the construction of an inclusive and competitive world-class Higher Education Area if we leave millions of students in Europe and hundreds of thousands of teachers and researchers out of one of its main initiatives?
To this manifest exclusion of a large portion of the European university system is added the fact that, in most cases, the universities in non-funded alliances are located in regions that are far from the major metropolises and centres of decision-making. They are, as a rule, medium-sized and relatively young institutions.
In addition to the funding gap between the two types of universities, there is a second gap, derived from the alliances and, therefore, the institutions excluded from European funding, being located precisely in areas where it is even more important to invest if Europe is to achieve the much desired social and inter-regional cohesion it seeks and prevent the rise of populist movements that have recently been of such concern to European society.
Towards a true sense of European citizenship
It is vital that we carefully review the set of decisions that the evidence suggests are being taken regarding the European Universities Initiative. These decisions are going to have far-reaching repercussions for millions of people within the European Union, specifically those in areas where European higher education must become more visible in order to create a true sense of European citizenship.
The very inclusive, sustainable, systemic nature of the project, which generated so much excitement in the beginning, is clearly at risk. It is time for us to raise awareness and strengthen the principles that must shape the creation of a true, consistent, sustainable and inclusive European Higher Education Area through the European Universities Initiative.
Sebastián Bruque is vice president for internationalisation, University of Jaén, Spain; professor in management (POM and international management); author or co-author of more than 50 papers in internationally recognised journals; a visiting scholar in universities in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovenia, the United States and India; and commissioner at the European Council for Business Education.