University alliances come under the research microscope

As a new organisational entity, the European Universities Initiative (EUI), proposed in 2017 to support the internationalisation of European higher education via the establishment of European university alliances committed to deep long-term cooperation, is proving to be a productive source of innovative new research for higher education and other researchers.

A recent study by University of Oslo-based higher education specialists Peter Maassen, Bjørn Stensaker and Arianna Rosso titled “The European university alliances – An examination of organizational potentials and perils” published in the journal Higher Education suggests that the programme may represent “an attempt to find an organisational solution to the European policy ambitions in higher education, research and innovation”.

Maassen et al present a framework for analysing the alliances based on qualitative interviews with representatives of 10 European university alliances and analyse the potential gains and perils alliances might face along four dimensions: their internal coordination, their ways of resolving conflicts, the commitment of member universities and the cultural characteristics of the alliances.

The study finds that there are indications of the long-term persistence of the alliances and potential for the EUI, as a new ‘(meta-)organisational form’ to become institutionalised in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

In its ‘closing reflections’ the study said more in-depth analysis of the cultural characteristics and identity of the new alliances could shed light on how the landscape of higher education in Europe is affected by the EUI.

In particular, the authors ask if the alliances will expand their agenda and scope over time.

They also suggest that as meta-organisations they may seek larger strategic partnerships with similar types of alliances and may gain importance over time.

“The fact that the EC [European Commission] currently is signalling more economic support for larger alliances could provide a strong incentive for inter-alliance mergers. The potential emergence of large alliances of universities might also have implications with respect to power and authority within the [EHEA],” the authors say.

They add that internal governance of university alliances is also worth pursuing in future studies.

“How university alliances are able to organise and use their work and activities in ways that facilitate knowledge transmission, learning and innovation within the partnership is here of particular interest, as learning and innovation are key reasons why many universities decide to enter alliances,” they say.

Significant updates

Daniel Apollon, associate professor of digital culture at the University of Bergen in Norway, who for two decades has been an expert for the European Commission in respect of higher education capacity building and digitalisation issues, said the EUI is not only about European collaboration and the stimulation of student mobility in higher education but is also aimed at reviving and actualising aspects of the Bologna Process, with some significant updates to the original priorities and context.

Apollon underlined how the EUI also links up with the ‘digital transformation’ agenda of the European Commission.

Apollon said it was important to grasp that the “subtending ideology or model” for the EUI is corporate digital transformation.

He said the message coming from the European Commission to higher education institutions is that universities have tended to operate with outdated ‘digitalisation’ of existing structures and forms of cooperation, and that the EUI initiative is a key means to stimulate the structural, institutional, organisational and cultural transformation of universities.

Rhizomatic analysis

Other researchers in higher education undertaking empirical studies of EUI alliances include Antonin Charret and Maia Chankseliani from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who published a study in Higher Education in August titled “The process of building European university alliances: A rhizomatic analysis of the European Universities Initiative”.

Analysing the EUI processes based on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and focusing on three alliances, Charret and Chankseliani apply a rhizomatic analysis and conclude that alliances rely heavily on pre-existing higher education and research partnerships while at the same time are experimenting to foster a diversity of institutional forms to achieve the goal of creating European universities.

Rhizomatic analyses are not very common in higher education studies, but the researchers argue that this perspective may be valuable in understanding the growth and establishment of new organisational forms.

Although a term traditionally used to describe the growth of plants in the natural world, higher education researchers argue it offers richer, creative and playful analytical opportunities.

Because the growth of a rhizome is horizontal, it differs radically from that of a root or a tree which grows vertically and represents hierarchy. “A rhizome has no easily identifiable central point” and it “flees hierarchy”. Rhizomes do not “derive from one main essence but are instead assembled from multiple origins that create a novel and unique whole”, according to Charret and Chankseliani.

Based on their empirical analysis, Charret and Chankseliani conclude that: “European university alliances are a novel phenomenon that builds on a long-standing idea of creating university networks within Europe. These transnational alliances are to embody the future of higher education in the EU with the ambitious objective to formalise the existence of European Universities by 2025.”

However, they caution that much remains to be achieved: “Removing legal and administrative barriers between member states for strengthened cooperation, developing sustainable and long-term funding mechanisms, and building a new governance framework for higher education in the EU”.

Understanding knowledge production

Rosi Braidotti, emerita professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and arguably one of Europe’s most influential cultural scientists, told University World News that Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy of nomadology, rhizomic and heterogeneous assemblages is “of the greatest relevance to the analysis of the conditions of life, of subject formation and knowledge production in our times”.

According to Braidotti, it “enables us to track, across a number of interdisciplinary fields, the emergence of heterogeneous and diverse discourses which are generated by the intersecting flows of critique and creativity in keeping with the vital materialism that supports them”.

Indispensible dialogues

She said the relational model of subjectivity “concretely means that it is advisable to make alliances in a transdisciplinary and multidirectional manner, both within and without the academic institutions. The dialogues will not always be easy or harmonious, but they are the indispensable means to proceed.”

She added: “It is crucial to explore and experiment with a variety of rhizomic and nomadic methods to analyse processes of knowledge formation.”

Dan Andrée, former representative of Swedish innovation agency Vinnova, based in Belgium, and current Brussels representative for University Alliance Stockholm Trio, told University World News that the EUI is a new concept which requires the European Commission to take a different approach, for example in proposing legislation changes, which they have been unable to do.

“If the university alliances start to see advantages to argue for changes to national legislation to enable implementation of initiatives in the EUI, this could succeed. I think there are some alliances where the universities are prepared to go much further, but it remains to be seen what impact it will have.”