Birth of a new field of study – European University Alliances

European University Alliances have spawned a new wave of studies, and the initiative has breathed new life into Europe-level cooperation on higher education reform.

Last September, when I started my PhD dedicated to European University Alliances (EUAs) at the Central European University’s public policy department, I struggled to find enough titles to fill my literature review on the topic.

Only a year later, there has been a mushrooming of articles specifically thematising the alliances and there are 28 researchers based in 20 different universities from 11 countries gathered in our informal research group on the European Universities Initiative.

How are all these researchers approaching the topic of EUAs and what are their findings?

On a practical level, European University Alliances are 50 networks of universities from different European countries. They have by now spread to 430 higher education institutions in 35 countries, attracting around 1,700 associated partners, including 30 Ukrainian universities.

The alliances have been formed in response to four successive Erasmus+ funding calls for the establishment of multi-campus universities that aim to expedite international collaboration in teaching, research and community engagement among European universities.

Naturally, the size, the speed of developments and the nature of the phenomenon have attracted the attention of scholars from various disciplines, not least because of the wealth of new empirical material to study.

What are European University Alliances?

The first question that researchers are grappling with is how to even conceptualise these new entities.

Are they simply a European response to a global trend of networking among universities, as Andrew Gunn suggests, giving its member universities a competitive advantage in the global market for talents? Or are they more substantial ‘learning networks’ where universities “share know-how, define strategies and pursue moral reflection” in order to better meet the demands of European society?

Should they be seen as ‘meta-organisations’ as suggested by Peter Maassen et al, a new organisational form to implement more or less the same policy goals for higher education that the European Union has been pursuing for decades? Are they ‘transactional partnerships’ linked together by project funding or do they have elements of what Albert Nijboer and Francesco Girotti describe as “transformational partnerships”?

These questions are not just asked as an intellectual exercise, but they help shape the collective attitude towards alliances and help governments tweak their national response to them.

The word ‘transformation’ is certainly on everybody’s lips in this new epistemic community gathered around alliances, as evidenced for instance at the second high level Forum of Alliances under the auspices of the Spanish presidency of the Council of the European Union in September this year.

But there is still no hard evidence from the academic community of this institutional transformation occurring. The European Commission’s upcoming monitoring framework may be able to demonstrate otherwise.

The answer is probably impossible to provide as alliances exhibit elements of each of these and by the nature of the very open policy design, are very different from each other.

Antonin Charret and Maia Chankseliani explore this diversity and liken the processes of experimentation within EUAs to that of rhizomes “to show how the alliances and participating higher education institutions are trying things out, launching new connections, making wrong turns, meeting dead ends, or celebrating successes”.

How widespread is this initiative?

Many feared that the European Universities Initiative (EUI) was a type of excellence initiative at a European level that would lead to a further stratification of the European higher education landscape into elite research universities versus applied or regionally oriented higher education institutions.

With France, Germany and Spain leading the way in terms of the number of alliances they coordinate and participate in, many are quick to jump to conclusions that this initiative is benefiting only a concentration of countries in the west and south.

But recently published research using quantitative data from the European Tertiary Education Register has shown that, compared to the size of the student body in a country, the distribution of alliance members across European Union member states is quite equal.

Similarly, it has shown that 54% of all doctoral students in the EU now study in universities that are part of an alliance. Whether they are aware of it or not is another matter.

Knowledge transfer to the rest of the HE sector

The level of progress of alliances varies greatly across the EU, not only because their funding started at different times across a period of four years, but also because they had widely different starting points. Some stem from previous collaborations and others are completely new.

As they experiment with different governance structures, reformulate their internationalisation strategies, innovate in teaching models, form new research collaborations and adjust their administrative processes to cater for new mobility schemes, alliances face a lot of challenges but are also blazing a trail for others to follow.

Knowledge transfer to other universities is difficult to achieve, but alliances themselves are engaging in a lot of self-reflection, also from an academic perspective.

The result is studies of a smaller scope offering in-depth analyses of specific practices that are transferable to other alliances. One example is the exploration by Forthem Alliance academics of how everyday practices within alliances could potentially lead to an enhanced sense of European identity among participants.

Another example is a study by EELISA alliance aeronautics professors who extensively survey and evaluate the innovative teaching and learning practices of five university alliances (EELISA, CIVIS, YUFE, CONEXUS and ARQUS).

A new wave of European integration in higher education?

With this level of coverage, one wonders whether we are seeing a kind of contraction of the European higher educational space.

Writing at the start of the initiative, Marina Cino Pagliarello identified two possible trajectories – one where EUAs act as a catalyst for renewed integration in higher education at a European level and another where (trans)national institutions act as key actors driving the alliances.

The jury is still out about where we find ourselves five years on from the start of the initiative.

On the one hand, some have noticed that the EUI emphasises the role that universities and colleges could play in the construction of the European project. On the other hand, Lee Rensimer and Rachel Brooks argue that it depends on the type of social actor asked – while some actors view the EUI as a vehicle for bringing about further Europeanisation and a deeper form of European integration, others foreground other aims.

The popularity of the initiative among universities seems to be precisely due to this transversality of policy goals, which leaves room for interpretation and leads to a sense of ownership by such diverse institutions as specialised engineering universities as well as art schools.

That said, research on how 31 alliances present their identity in mission statements found a high degree of homogenisation around low risk and easily accepted areas of value to stakeholders, presumably due to the pressure to meet the requirements of the funding call.

Impact on national policies and politics

Research into country-specific implementation of the EUI is somewhat lagging behind in terms of volume. One exception is an Erasmus+ agency-funded mapping of the implementation challenges of EUI in Poland.

My own research explores how national governments are responding to the European Universities Initiative and what the power dynamics are in higher education governance systems at an EU level since the entry of alliances into the policy arena.

While we await further studies analysing the precise domestic impact of this initiative, we can say with confidence that alliances have woken up the sleeping beauty of European-level cooperation on higher education reform and that researchers are recognising their research potential and are keenly observing their impact.

Nadia Manzoni is a PhD candidate in public policy at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations at the Central European University. She is on leave from the European Commission where she worked for nearly 10 years as a policy officer in education in the Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture. Her educational background is in education (University of Cambridge) and European studies (University of Vienna).