Judge European Universities by added value, EUA urges

Policy-makers are too narrowly focused on measuring the progress of the European Universities Initiative by quantitative measurements rather than by the real added value university alliances bring to higher education staff and students and wider eco-systems, claims a new policy paper.

So far, discussions on the development of ‘an indicator framework’ to measure the achievements of the European university alliances have centred on quantitative measurements, instead of taking a holistic approach to show how the initiative, backed by the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme, has benefitted teaching and learning and transnational cooperation, says the European University Association (EUA).

In a recently published policy input paper, the EUA, which has 850 members and represents universities and national rectors’ conferences in 49 European countries, offers its ideas for assessing what has been achieved in the four years since the European Commission (EC) invited European universities to form the first alliances under the Erasmus+ banner and how progress should be monitored in the future.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, EUA deputy director for policy coordination and foresight, told University World News: “Our policy paper is targeted at policy-makers, notably the European Commission and EU member states’ higher education ministries, but also members of the European Parliament.

“We feel they have been too focused on quantitative measurements rather than taking a holistic approach which considers the real added value for universities and their communities.”

Measure more than numbers

The policy brief from the EUA comes as the Erasmus+ 2021-27 programme is undergoing its mid-term review by the EC and stakeholders are currently being consulted for their views. Claeys-Kulik calls the EUA’s new paper “a timely reminder to policy-makers to measure more than numbers when it comes to the progress of the alliances”.

She said initiative is still a work in progress; she recognises the “temptation” for policy-makers to want to see the early impact to justify their investment, but they “need to realise that transnational cooperation takes time and the change process is difficult to measure. Importantly, not everything that can be counted should be measured.”

So, instead of just looking at the number of joint degrees and programmes launched so far by the 44 existing university alliances involving around 340 higher education institutions in 31 countries, policy-makers should be considering how to overcome the barriers and obstacles that universities have faced in developing deep, transnational corporation, said Claeys-Kulik.

University World News mentioned some of these challenges in a report on the EUA’s briefing paper published in October 2022.

Titled “The European Universities Initiative and system level reforms”, the report highlighted differences between European countries in accreditation and quality assurance of joint programmes, differences in academic, calendars and grading, and restrictions in the language of instruction and variations to university funding systems and tuition fees, as well as barriers to making contracts with foreign entities.

Approaching the half-way stage

Claeys-Kulik pointed out that the European Universities Initiative is only approaching the halfway stage in what was seen as an initial ten-year vision to bring higher education institutions closer together to learn from each other, share experiences and develop joint programmes and other forms of transnational cooperation.

Among the first batch of alliances is UNIC, with eight higher education institution partners in post-industrial cities from University College Cork (UCC), Ireland in the west to Koç University, Turkey in the east.

It is currently recruiting for a new two-year masters programme due to be launched this autumn which will be fully delivered in English and include tailored mandatory mobility between the participating university campuses.

Dr Jean van Sinderen-Law, director of European Relations and Public Affairs at UCC, told University World News that just being part of the alliance has boosted staff morale and benefitted professional and academic staff links with peers across Europe to share best practice.

“It has also leveraged additional funding for new partnerships and research and we’re now in conversation with the city of Rotterdam about developing relationships as we’re two core port cities and have similar needs and challenges.

“We’re also working with Oulu in Finland, another UNIC partner, which will be Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2026 and we are exploring how we might tie UNIC initiatives into that.

“Being involved with the initiative has already had lots of positive spin-offs beyond the new joint degree and put Europe much higher up the agenda as a result of our participation in an alliance.”

Recognise barriers to transnational collaboration

Una Europa is another of the first wave of alliances and brings together 11 leading European universities which serve a total of around half-a-million students.

It is already offering an undergraduate and a postgraduate joint degree, as well as a number of short courses. The alliance’s senior policy officer Sophia Karner agrees with the EUA that “any monitoring exercise must be contextualised, particularly in relation to barriers to transnational collaboration that persist to date”.

She said: “We do see a risk in quantitative indicators leading to the overall impression that European University Alliances are merely a sum of their parts.

“The initiative, however, provides the scope for new and innovative forms of transnational collaboration. To capture this meaningfully, any future monitoring framework must take a multidimensional approach, where qualitative indicators complement quantitative data.”

Céline Delacourt-Gollain, director of international relations at Université de Montpellier, France, which is a member of the CHARM-EU alliance, said they have also been discussing the best approach to evaluation and felt positive both internally and with talks with the ministry covering higher education.

“We have been really well evaluated and funded, but our achievements are on the governance level, the integration of the members, the forward looking and the international strategy. Not on the number of mobilities or diplomas, as we only have one masters created during the pilot phase. The goals were qualitative and not quantitative compared to other alliances.”

So far University World News understands that only one alliance has fallen by the wayside – an alliance of arts institutions – despite the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

View from the Commission

The European Commission is currently inviting more universities to support the initiative, with the pledge of a total budget of €387.2 million (US$ 483 million) for 2023 and has the stated ambition of raising the total of European university alliances from 44 to 60, involving 500 higher education institutions, by mid 2024.

The Commission initiated consultations on the development of a monitoring framework for assessing the outcomes and transformational potential of the European Universities Initiative last year.

Specifically, this will look at how the alliances are delivering on the objectives put forward at the start of this initiative, which were outlined in various ‘Erasmus+ calls’, which talk in terms of “promoting European values and identity, and revolutionising the quality and competitiveness of European higher education”.

Although the Commission claims to be aiming for “a coherent approach”, combining quantitative and qualitative components, it is understood that the ‘indicator framework’ will not be used to benchmark and compare the different alliances.

The EC acknowledges the alliances “have different approaches to realise their ambitions to make their European University a reality” and says it “cherishes diversity”.

An EC source said the latest paper from the EUA was welcomed and will be considered as part of an on-going consultation process, which will be continued throughout 2023, with the objective to deliver a report in 2024.

EUA policy considerations

The EUA policy input paper calls on policy-makers to consider monitoring overall progress towards the initiative’s goals through “a structured mapping of the challenges and obstacles” to provide a better understanding of why progress may be slower or more difficult in certain areas.

It also wants the selected method for measuring progress and impact to be clear about how collaboration in alliances is expected to lead to specific change and recognise that besides participating in an alliance, universities collaborate at many levels and in diverse formats with partners in Europe and internationally.

“Any indicator framework must have clear definitions,” says the EUA paper, and understand that “a joint programme is not the same as a joint degree” and that the former does not necessarily lead to the latter and whatever monitoring tool is chosen should be “tested for relevance, validity, feasibility and reliability”.

Data collection should combine quantitative and qualitative methods and should not create an excessive additional burden for universities. “Results must be presented alongside a qualitative analysis in order to provide a better understanding of the impact of cooperation through alliances”.

The EUA is adamant that there “should be no automatic link between the outcomes of the monitoring exercise through an indicator framework and future funding for alliances”.

It says it should be recognised that developing “deep and large-scale transnational cooperation between universities takes time” and should be seen as one way, among others, to achieve the overall goals of the European Education Area, the European Research Area and the European Higher Education Area.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at