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Transforming higher education – is the future Europe?

Transforming higher education – is the future Europe?

Written by Callum Reilly, WroCAH Doctoral Student

November 2019

European Universities will bring a ‘paradigm shift’ in higher education across the continent: this is the message from Themis Christophidou, Director-General of Education, Youth, Sport and Culture at the European Commission. If successful, the Commission’s flagship education initiative will help to create the European Education Area and enhance the international competitiveness of universities in Europe. But how is this possible? And what is the future of the UK in this vision?

The European Universities Initiative provides funding to set up transnational alliances of at least three higher education institutions (HEIs) from three different EU Member States or Erasmus+ countries. Once established, these alliances will be recognised as European Universities, which will aim to foster deeper collaboration, develop flexible curricula, and integrate with research, innovation and civil society.

Under the first pilot call, 17 alliances, involving a combined total of 114 HEIs, were awarded funding to establish pilot European Universities over the next three years. With the second pilot call for submissions recently launched, and an official call opening in 2020/21, now is an opportunity for universities to learn from these first successful alliances.

With a maximum of €5 million per alliance, the funding is relatively small for the scale of change that the universities are expected to deliver. University leaders reportedly advised that up to three times this amount is needed to implement their initiative proposals. European Universities will therefore have to be largely self-sustainable, though access to additional funding (national or regional) is possible.

Despite this limitation, the first projects demonstrate a range of ambitious and innovative proposals: most significantly, the integration of research and education through challenge-based learning. One alliance, ECIU, foresees this model as potentially replacing degree-based education.

The first alliances have proposed a range of challenge areas, including European heritage, global health and coastal sustainability. Because of their breadth, students need not work within their discipline and could instead work collaboratively with other learners, researchers and academics from across different disciplines to address wide societal issues.

The Commission has further suggested that the European Universities Initiative will be a key mechanism to integrate education not only with research, but also with innovation. Once the official call is launched, it will benefit from greater synergy between the upcoming Horizon Europe and the future Erasmus programmes.

Currently, few UK institutions have taken part in the initiative. Just 3 of the 17 successful alliances include UK HEI partners: EUTOPIA (The University of Warwick), UNA Europa (The University of Edinburgh) and YUFE (University of Essex). This pales in comparison with the 16 French or 15 German HEIs among the first alliances.

This is altogether unsurprising given uncertainty over Brexit, with an unclear future for the Erasmus programme in the UK. If the UK ceases to be an Erasmus country after Brexit, it will no longer be eligible to participate in initiatives such as European Universities. 

A lack of current UK participation might not necessarily be driven by other European HEIs seeing the involvement UK partners as a risky venture. On the contrary, many alliance representatives have echoed the view that the initiative needs the support of institutions in countries like the UK in order to be successful. 

It is more likely that non-participation is driven by anxieties held by HE stakeholders within the UK. This is especially the case when it appears this country is unlikely to gain national support for the initiative to the extent that Germany, Ireland or Spain has seen.

Though the initiative is intended to support the creation of the European Education Area, the message from university leaders is quite different. In discussions with alliance representatives, many saw the concept of European Universities as something bigger: bigger than national or EU politics, and bigger even than Europe itself. Whatever political or legal barriers lay in the way of this wider vision, there is a feeling of determination to make European Universities work. If they succeed, however, support from the EU might not be the make-or-break factor.

Speaking at the 2019 conference on the European Universities Initiative, Dr. Daniela Trani (managing director, YUFE alliance) said that whatever the outcome of Brexit, the alliance was committed to involving its UK partner on a long-term basis. This is perhaps why the few UK institutions that have taken part so far seem relatively unfazed by their future in the initiative. Time will tell whether this vocal support can be converted into sustained action.

Regardless of whether further UK institutions can, or even wish to, participate in the initiative, they would be wise to monitor the development of European Universities over the coming years. Certainly, there is nothing to stop UK institutions from adopting ideas and concepts from the initiative on an unofficial basis. If the initiative does indeed change the higher education landscape in Europe, UK universities must not only be prepared but must take active steps to retain their influence in research and education.

The second pilot call for submissions is now open and will close on 26 February (17:00 Brussels time). For more information on the European Universities Initiative, please see the European Commission website or contact the White Rose Brussels office.

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