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Towards a European Education Area by 2025: the rise of the ‘European Universities’ Initiative

Towards a European Education Area by 2025: the rise of the ‘European Universities’ Initiative

In September 2017 French President, Emmanuel Macron, delivered a speech about the future of Europe that harnesses real ‘sovereignty, unity and democracy’, with specific priorities (amongst others) named as security cooperation, the environment, a digital union, and education. This speech has been received in various ways, with many heralding Macron for trying to reignite a ‘European Spirit’ and boost overall EU morale. Yet, some also saw it as an exercise of wishful thinking, with those sceptical of the European project stepping further back from this pro-European rhetoric. However, this speech was grounded in the realities that Europe is currently facing: migration, the rise of populism, the impact of globalisation and technology on skills and the labour market and of course, Brexit. These are all sources of concern and are framing the vision of the future in Europe because the current vision is ‘too slow, too weak, [and] too ineffective’ to deal with them.

These sentiments were reiterated at the Social Summit in Gothenburg in November 2017, where the Commission discussed the social dimensions of Europe’s future, including that of Education and Culture. It was here that a new European Education Area (EEA) was proposed, looking to build on the Sorbonne Declaration, the Bologna Process and the work already being done in the development of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The creation of the EEA is being fuelled by the priority of capacity-building for European citizens, with effective education and training being pivotal to its delivery. It is within this that HE can play ‘a decisive role’ in helping build this capacity, as well as combat the societal challenges Europe is currently facing. A proposed way that the EU Commission, and voiced by Macron in September, sees Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) fulfilling this role is in the creation of ‘European Universities’.

The long-term goals and objectives of the European Universities have been shaped by the Commission’s vision of the EEA and the future of the EHEA. Between now and 2025, the European Commission have identified the core aim of the ‘European Universities’ to be a tool in achieving a stronger, and more united European Union that is open to the rest of the world. They envisage that this will be done through this initiative by building trust across different HEIs, where common European values will be promoted and cooperation will happen across borders, cultures, languages and disciplines. The hope is to ‘bring together’ the next generation of European citizens, enabling them to be creative, innovative and hold transferable skills for a largely unknown, future labour market.

Alongside this, an objective of the ‘European Universities’ is to increase the quality, performance, competitiveness and ‘attractiveness’ of European HEIs, where innovative pedagogies are at the forefront of teaching practice, as well as striving to make the Quadruple Helix Model a reality in how education, research and innovation are brought together. The final identified objective for ‘European Universities’ is the contribution to the ‘European Knowledge Economy’, as well as the areas of employment, culture, welfare and research systems on a global scale. This final aim is demonstrative to the long-term vision the Commission has of this initiative, reaching far beyond 2025. The Commission envisages that these ‘European Universities’ will not become ‘exclusive clubs’ but rather are actively encouraging diversity when it comes to the types of HEIs that could apply, eager to not see a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model emerge from the pilot schemes. Rather, there is hope from the Commission that individual HEIs will look to this initiative to reshape what we mean by transnational collaboration and be the leaders in terms of what this could look like and the best practice that will, hopefully, emerge. However, they have provided an initial framework for this initiative to at least stem from between now and 2025.

Practically, this means that the EU Commission hopes to have around 20 ‘European Universities’ set up by 2024, of which they have stated – in draft documentation – that there must be a minimum of three HEIs from at least three different Member States. It can also include any HEI or public/private organisation (as full or associated partners) active in the fields of education, training, research and innovation if they are all located within the Erasmus+ program countries. So far, there has been no maximum set on how many partners can be included, but it is recommended (especially for the pilot call outlined below) that there are between 4-6 full-time partners, with the possibility to grow over time. Earlier this year EU Commission called for concept papers to be put forward by current transnational alliances to help inform what these ‘European Universities’ could look like in reality. These current alliances have continued to be part of the ongoing discussion with the Commission helping shape the basic framework, particularly with regards to the pilot calls.

There will be two pilot calls for the proposed ‘European Universities’ both launched under the 2019 and 2020 Erasmus+ work programs as centralised actions. Submission of proposals for the first Pilot Call will need to be submitted by the 28th February 2019 at 9pm (CET Midday Brussels time) with projects commencing on 1st October 2019. The second Pilot Call will be released late in 2019 with projects commencing in 2020. Please email the White Rose Brussels Office if you wish to be kept updated on the progression of the pilot calls.

There is no fully formed or set model for this ‘European Universities’ Initiative that can be lifted and replicated, especially in time for the pilot calls. The vague nature of these ‘European Universities’ is in the hope that those involved early will help shape it for those that follow, fitting into their want to demonstrate ‘flexibility’ and no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. So, this begs the question: what could this look like? There are set requirements put forward by the Commission, and outlined above, such as there being a minimum of three HEIs – from three different Member States – involved. We currently know that funding will be drawn from the increased Erasmus+ funding and synergies with the increased Horizon Europe (FP9) budget, creating links with R&I after the education-focused pilots.

The blurred image of these ‘European Networks’ raises important questions for HEIs in Europe, and specifically in the UK. We need to ask how this might be important long-term, both in terms of collaborative partnerships and in terms of funding. However, the real question is whether to act now and be at the front of deciding what best practice should look like but run the risk of the inevitable stumbles and failures? Or to wait to see what happens next and come in when the picture becomes clearer, even if it means the parameters are not favourable? There are the practical concerns as well. The success of these European Universities appears to rely not only on matching departmental cultures, but also the vision and strategic alignment at an institutional leadership level. It appears vital that the initial process start small, with a specific focus and should grow into a long-term effort where trust can be forged over time. This means looking to not just the next three, five or even ten years, it means looking beyond 2025 and how the EEA may look and what the UK’s HEIs role(s) will be in this.

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