European Universities Initiative: Driving societal impact

Much has been written about the European Universities Initiative (EUI), from the top-down ambitious goals for it, to the challenges at the coalface in making it work. But what is it like to introduce and lead the initiative within a university, a member of one of the 44 EUI alliances?

University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland is a partner in UNIC, the European University of Post-Industrial Cities. In a novel approach, UNIC is a partnership of 10 universities and their cities, formally bound by a memorandum of understanding between each university and its municipality, underpinning intensive engagement and partnership.

Cities and community stakeholders advise on the development of the initiative and, through the CityLabs approach, are co-creating research and teaching initiatives, and the development of solutions for key societal challenges.

This approach plays strongly to the third mission of universities, ie, civic and community engagement and societal impact, and places the notion of engaged research very much at the fore.

The concept of working across disciplines within a university is already challenging, not to mention working across institutions in the same and different countries. However, on balance, the benefits far outweigh the challenges when academic and professional staff, students and, in the case of UNIC, city and community stakeholders, collaborate closely towards a common goal.

New networks

Collaboration between academic and professional staff in universities is often shaped by a dynamic that sees professional staff in a support role to academic staff, allowing little room for innovation in the professional structures of the institution.

This initiative has brought the staff cohort to the table as equals with a common focus. Academic staff have, through research and teaching, long had the opportunity to link with each other across Europe and beyond, but seldom have professional staff had the need to interact with their equivalents in the same way.

This initiative has catalysed a groundswell of sharing of expertise and best practice and has fuelled the development of new networks of professional staff.

Within institutions, EUI alliances have also catalysed the bringing together of academic staff members from disparate disciplines who, in the absence of this opportunity, would not have had reason to even meet or interact. Innovation takes place when people from different and disparate disciplines come together and it is from that interface that innovation emerges.

In addition, UNIC helps early career researchers in particular to develop networks, grow personally and professionally, and provides access to postgraduate and PhD students.

In UCC we have developed a UNIC academic forum chaired by the deputy president and registrar which brings together all academic staff from all disciplines involved in UNIC. It serves to enable discussions around challenges and opportunities while acknowledging the role they play in making this happen for UCC.

Emphasis is now being placed on incorporating participation in such global activities in the academic promotion process.

Student participation

Then there are the students. The UNIC student board has ensured that students have seats on the decision-making boards of the alliance and provides a space for students from all 10 participating countries to come together to share their experiences and to ensure UNIC is designed for and with students.

Students are being provided with a platform from which to voice their opinions and to inform the direction of policy with respect to the future of the European Education Area (EEA) and the European Research Area (ERA).

UNIC is a platform through which students can access European Universities through new mobility frameworks (Erasmus exchange, virtual exchanges and physical and virtual workshops), gaining a European experience and an opportunity to be educated about diversity and multiculturalism as they embrace an opportunity to acquire European languages and experiences.

This deepens their educational experience while also increasing their value and attractiveness to employers.

Friendship across borders

The EUI as an opportunity hit us as the global pandemic gripped us, locking us down. It was a time of huge stress for people but, as a result of MS Teams and Zoom platforms, new friends and colleagues from across Europe were beamed into our flats, bedrooms and broom cupboards, providing an exciting and new horizon.

The positive impact of the EUI on stakeholders’ mental health can therefore not be underestimated. As we worked hard on the pilot phase, a war was declared in Europe and European solidarity was never more important than it is now.

How privileged we are to now have a ready-made group of friends and allies across nine member states and Turkey. In devising our own response to the Ukrainian crisis, we learned from each other and developed programmes of support for scholars fleeing the war.

Doing things differently

Ireland is a country where universities are not as well funded as they are elsewhere and being part of UNIC supports other successful European funding applications.

Ireland wants to be front and centre of the EEA and the ERA. In order to do so, the government needs to support participating higher education institutions. In an unprecedented manner and as a result of lobbying by Irish higher education institutions participating in EUIs, the Irish government provided financial support for participating institutions in 2022, but it is not yet clear whether support will be forthcoming in 2023.

The value of doing so is clear. Governments are now watching what the other is doing and learning from each other – all catalysed by this initiative.

UNIC has caused us to scrutinise our approach to developing new teaching programmes, to consider how we deliver courses, to ask ourselves why we do things in a particular way and if there is perhaps another more effective way of so doing.

We are fast realising that many of the bottlenecks are within our own control and that we can make decisions internally to do things differently for greater effect.

A European future

European Universities are at the forefront of European and international policy changes in higher education and can access substantial funding for research and education (€1.1 billion – equivalent to US$1.14 billion – until 2027 in Erasmus+ alone).

UNIC provides a partnership for sustainability in the urban context, for diversity and inclusion and for civic and community engagement.

Other opportunities stem from the recent announcement of the EU Mission for 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030. Of the 10 UNIC partner cities, six were selected for this programme: Cork, Malmo, Rotterdam, Lodz, Zagreb and Istanbul.

Through UNIC, we are providing a European experience to UCC students and staff and offering a value proposition for international (non-EU) student recruitment. As a member of UNIC, in the post-Brexit era, UCC is well positioned to celebrate Ireland’s 50-year membership of the EU in 2023 and to inform European policies and raise Ireland’s profile on the European stage.

Dr Jean van Sinderen-Law is associate vice-president, director of European relations and public affairs and director of UNIC UCC, European University of Post-Industrial Cities at the University College Cork, Ireland.