EUA maps European Universities Initiative challenges

Three years after the European Commission invited European universities to form the first alliances under the Erasmus+ banner, national rectors’ conferences say plenty of challenges still confront institutions trying to create a transnational higher education framework across the continent.

As the pilot phase comes to an end, it is time to take stock of efforts to overcome the barriers and challenges to transnational university collaboration across European borders, according to the European University Association (EUA), which published a briefing paper titled “The European Universities Initiative and system level reforms” on 19 October 2022.

Using new evidence provided by national rectors’ conferences and interviews conducted for the next update of the EUA’s Autonomy Scorecard, the report highlights regulatory and other obstacles to transnational collaboration.

Problems appear mainly at the national or system level across the 30 higher education sectors involved in the pilot scheme, and they need resolving as soon as possible because the European universities initiative is set for expansion.

The latest (fourth) call, launched in October 2022, provides higher education institutions from all West Balkan countries with the chance to join the alliances as full partners with EU funding.

Other countries, which are not signed up to the Erasmus+ but are part of the Bologna Process, can take part in the alliances as associated partners – but without EU funding, explained Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, deputy director for policy coordination and foresight at the EUA.

Major challenges

However, before universities get too excited, the EUA briefing warns that major challenges face European transnational higher education cooperation, including:

• Different requirements for the accreditation and quality assurance of joint programmes;

• Differences in the implementation of the European approach to quality assurance of joint programmes and the number of European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits needed for a degree;

• Differences in academic calendars and grading;

• Differences in higher education access requirements and the ability of higher education institutions to select students;

• Differences and restrictions in the language of instruction on higher education courses;

• Differences in university funding systems and tuition fees;

• Restrictions on universities making contracts with foreign entities;

• Restrictions on universities creating legal entities.

The briefing paper was compiled by a team of EUA experts, including Claeys-Kulik and Enora Bennetot Pruvot, deputy director for governance, funding and public policy development, who both spoke to University World News about the findings.

Claeys-Kulik said: “It has proved difficult in some areas to make progress, but some very practical things were agreed at a political level some years ago; for example, the European approach to quality assurance of joint programmes.

“However, despite being adopted by ministers as part of the Bologna Process in 2015, some countries have still to actually put it in place.”

She told University World News there is plenty of enthusiasm in the university sector to collaborate, with many institutions seeing the European Universities Initiative (EUI) as a way to enhance their mission and the quality of learning and teaching. However, differences in institutional practices as well as national barriers are sometimes getting in the way.

Language barriers

Bennetot Pruvot told University World News: “A lot of the barriers boil down to decisions at the national level, such as how to deal with language in your higher education system and, most importantly, resources.”

The EUA report says there are still several countries where universities face restrictions regarding the use of foreign languages in teaching.

For example, in Lithuania universities must justify organising courses in ‘non-official languages’ on the grounds of internationalisation, while Denmark introduced a law last year stipulating the number of study places for programmes delivered in English for each institution, which led to many programmes being terminated.

In Flanders, Belgium, universities can only offer a maximum of 35% of their masters programmes in languages other than Dutch, and only 9% at bachelor degree level, “which is proving a major barrier to transnational education efforts”.

Some countries and systems insist that universities may only launch bachelor and-or masters degree programmes in a foreign language when the programme is already available in a national language – whether at the same institution (Estonia, Slovenia) or in the sector (Flanders).

“The francophone universities of Belgium also face significant restrictions in that area,” said Bennetot Pruvot.

The EUA report also points out that in Cyprus and Greece, bachelor degree programmes must be taught in the national language, with the exception that Greek universities may deliver bachelor programmes in foreign languages as long as it is only for foreign applicants.

Tackling the language question was supposed to be crucial to building an inclusive and multicultural Europe. This was under the original dream of European university alliances by French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seen as kick-starting the alliances as a way of building stronger pan-European integration.

However, the reality on the ground is that most alliances are “sticking to English” as the main medium of teaching instead of having “pluri-language courses”, according to Céline Delacourt-Gollain, director of international relations at Université de Montpellier, France, which was part of the EUI pilot alliance called CHARM-EU.

Delacourt-Gollain told University World News that language decisions were driven by “the need to deliver outcomes in less than three years, the lack of a common language strategy and the lack of language specialists in the consortium, as well as no funding [being] dedicated to language issues.”

Lift-off for joint programmes

Among the European university alliances already offering joint programmes through the European Universities Initiative is Una Europa which has just launched its first joint three-year programme, a joint bachelor degree in European Studies consisting of a truncus communis – a set of common courses at the start of the programme taught in English, followed by a choice of major and minor options to study at another partner university in either English or local languages.

“In addition, language classes also form part of the curriculum with the aim of encouraging students to master a second European language in addition to English by the time they graduate with 180 ECTS. The first cohort of 250 students from 35 different countries started the programme this month,” Sophia Karner, policy officer for the alliance, told University World News.

Eight European universities are involved in the pilot course, including the University of Edinburgh in the UK, a country not fully associated with the EU’s Erasmus+ programme.

Swiss universities are also participating in the EUI alliances despite not being associated with Erasmus+.

In Switzerland’s case, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation has made funding available for Swiss higher education institutions to join as associated partners.

In the latest call, four Swiss universities joined four different alliances: the University of Zurich joined Una Europa, the University of Lausanne joined CIVIS, the University of Geneva joined 4EU+, while the University of Basel joined EPICUR (1CORE).

Sustainability and recognition of effort

Plans are also well advanced at another EUI alliance to launch a new pan-European course, this time a postgraduate programme on reimagining the post-industrial city.

The two-year masters course will be offered from October 2023 by a consortium called UNIC: European University of Post-Industrial Cities, Dr Jean van Sinderen-Law, from University College Cork, Ireland, told University World News. It will be delivered predominantly in English.

Van Sinderen-Law said sustainability of European university alliances was a major challenge for such ventures, with European Commission funding quite limited and national governments not fully aligned in terms of supplementing the funding required.

“There is also a need to recognise the extra effort that staff put in over and above their normal duties to develop such collaborative programmes, as well as work on the complex aspects of ensuring that all elements pertaining to student mobility and welfare are catered for.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik from the EUA said their report should be seen as “a wake-up call” to stakeholders. It lays out the key issues to making the European university initiative a success and reminds policy-makers that not all universities and systems are starting from the same level.

“While there are attempts from the European Commission to come up with new instruments, like the European degree label, we need to foster discussion about existing challenges and map these quite thoroughly and we hope our briefing paper is an important contribution to that process,” she said.

* The European Commission reported in July 2022 that there were already 44 European universities alliances involving 340 higher education institutions.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at