European Universities Initiative expands its alliances

The European Union has taken a major step towards achieving its goal of creating 60 European University alliances involving 500 higher education institutions (HEIs) by mid-2024, with the announcement of seven new alliances and a push to include some universities in the Western Balkans and Ukraine as members of the €402 million (US$441 million) Erasmus+ funded initiative.

The results of the 2023 Erasmus+ call by the European Commission will see the number of European University alliances increased to 50, involving more than 430 HEIs. This puts the goal of expanding the initiative to create 60 European Universities with more than 500 participating HEIs by mid-2024 within the grasp of European higher education policy-makers.

The European Union has increased the overall budget to support the European Universities Initiative to €402.2 million from the Erasmus+ programme, with each alliance receiving a budget of up to €14.4 million for four years.

The latest announcement from the European Commission includes setting aside over €3 million to support the full participation of HEIs from the Western Balkans countries not currently associated with the EU’s Erasmus+ mobility and exchange programme.

This means the European Universities Initiative, which is driving the expansion of the university alliances, can include HEIs from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, in addition to those from the Republic of North Macedonia and Serbia.

Ukrainian associated partners

A European Commission spokeswoman told University World News that the expansion of the initiative to Ukraine is going well, with nearly 30 HEIs from Ukraine joining as associated partners.

She said: “The contracts with the selected alliances will be signed this autumn. No further steps need to be taken by the Ukrainian higher education institutions to be associated and to take part in the activities of the European Universities.”

Roman Petyur, head of the International Relations Office at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine, told University World News: “We have joined the EUniWell as de jure associate partner. We seek full membership as soon as the EU legislation allows. The alliance members are very supportive and engage us in all the activities of the alliance as if we were a full member.”

He said the alliances give the European universities taking part the chance to go beyond a dual degree between two HEIs, which in the past “would seem an exemplary collaboration”.

He added: “Now, we can envisage a joint programme of, say, nine or 11 universities creating a very competitive product with embedded mobility and strong capacity to deliver a high-quality degree.”

Switzerland and UK miss out

However, while the European University alliances are expanding eastwards and further into the Balkans under this latest announcement, no universities from the United Kingdom or Switzerland are among those listed in any of the seven newly created alliances – another sign, perhaps, of the repercussions of neither country being part of the Erasmus+ programme for 2021-27.

In theory, HEIs from any of the 49 countries attached to the Bologna Process and European Higher Education Area are eligible to be considered as ‘associate members’, which means they can join an alliance if they meet the criteria. However, they won’t receive any EU funding and have to pay for the privilege of being involved.

British higher education stakeholders have expressed regret at the lack of involvement by UK universities in the expansion of the initiative, which seeks to create a new generation of Europeans – who are able to study and work in different European countries, in different languages, across sectors and academic disciplines, and gain a degree by combining studies in several European countries.

Dr Vangelis Tsiligkiris, associate professor in international and digital business education at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, told University World News: “Sadly, no UK university is participating in the projects announced in the latest expansion of the European University alliances.

“This is a missed opportunity for UK HEIs to be part of a strategic initiative which is engaging European universities in innovative transnational education models that are creating value and impact across education, science and society.”

TNE no substitute

Tsiligkiris – who founded the TNE Hub, now a 500-strong international network of researchers and practitioners in transnational education (TNE) with members in 30 countries – said discussions in UK higher education around TNE being a substitute to make up for the shortfall in EU students coming to the UK since Brexit, and the lack of UK involvement in the EU’s Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe programmes, missed the mark.

“There is too much focus on developing siloed institutional approaches [in the UK] and this impacts the ability of UK HEIs to follow the developments that occur in the EU and other geographical regions, such as Southeast Asia, where there is an incredible pace of development in innovative transnational collaboration,” he told University World News.

Four UK universities joined the pilot European Universities Initiative back in 2020, including the University of Warwick, where Professor Jo Angouri produced a new paper for the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities on transnational collaboration in European higher education, as University World News reported last month.

Swiss more positive

The reaction to the expansion of the European Universities Initiative has been more positive in Switzerland, despite the lack of involvement of Swiss HEIs in the latest call to expand the project.

Gian-Andri Casutt, head of communication for the ETH Board which covers two universities, ETH Zürich and École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), said: “With the expansion to 50 alliances from 35 countries, the European Commission is taking an important step to strengthen Europe’s higher education landscape [through] the internationalisation of education, research and innovation, initiated through the Bologna Process reforms.”

Although the Swiss institutions, like the British, must fund any involvement with the university alliances, nine Swiss universities are members of various alliances, “among them ETH Zurich and EPFL which are part of the ENHANCE and EuroTeQ 2030 [alliances] respectively”.

Casutt, who is also president of the European higher education communication officers’ network EUPRIO, said the inclusion of countries from the Western Balkans and non-EU countries in the initiative is a “brain gain” for the individual countries and for Europe through “brain circulation”.

He said EUPRIO is organising a workshop during its 2023 annual conference in Wien, Austria, next month to share best practice and experiences of trying to communicate the value and benefits of the European University alliances to students and other stakeholders.

New members joining existing alliances

In addition to creating seven new alliances, some of the existing alliances are being expanded by the latest Erasmus+ call, including two new universities joining UNIC, the European University of Post-Industrial Cities.

The new members of UNIC are the University of Lodz in Poland and Malmö University in Sweden.

Dr Jean van Sinderen-Law, a director of UNIC from University College Cork, Ireland, said they had considerable interest from universities wanting to join their consortium and sought out others who they felt might make a good fit.

After an interview process, UNIC decided “democratically and inclusively” to move from eight to 10 members of their alliance, she said, adding: “Malmö and Lodz are cities in post-industrial transition and both universities are wedded to the core values of UNIC and to engagement with, and impact on, their cities.”

Asked about the European University Initiative expanding into South-Eastern Europe, she told University World News: “The challenges of EU engagement in the Western Balkans are mainly political and economic as the EU works to support the region’s integration into the European Union through various initiatives, which include the European Universities Initiative.

“However, challenges relating to the rule of law, public administration, economic governance and trust cannot be understated.”

Spearheading innovation

Besides expanding the number of universities involved, many of the European University alliances are spearheading innovative transformational change of higher education in Europe away from traditional full-time and part-time degrees.

Among them is one of the first of the alliances, ECIU, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities, which has made the use of “micro-credentials in flexible learning pathways” its centrepiece, according to Niall Power, the institutional coordinator for the Erasmus+ programme at the University of Aveiro, Portugal.

He told University World News that ECIU is already issuing digital certificates that “attest that the holders successfully completed an advanced, but short, education and training course and developed specific skills” through a model co-created with companies and other stakeholders in society.

“Together they participate in deciding what the content of the course should be and the micro-credentials are flexible, insofar as they can be completed in different countries and they are accessible to learners both within and outside the university system,” he said.

“To obtain micro-credentials in the ECIU University, learners take on projects, or to be more exact, community challenges proposed by external partners like business, civic associations and municipalities in what we call ‘challenge-based education’, ‘challenge-based research’ and ‘challenge-based innovation’.”

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