The European Universities Initiative has been operating for four years and is still in the pilot phase. European higher education institutions are looking at whether they can offer better study programmes and joint degrees by partnering with institutions from other Member States. They can, according to a new report for the European Parliament, but much remains to be done.
Barend van der Meulen is a professor at the University of Twente and director of CHEPS, which examines higher education policy. He expects great things from the initiative. The University of Twente is itself taking part in one of these international partnerships.
Does the European Union want to establish new universities, with their own buildings?
“No, they don’t, but they are trying to foster collaboration. They already have a couple of hundred institutions in 44 alliances.”
Surely higher education institutions have been collaborating internationally for a long time?
“Yes, they have, but it’s limited mainly to individual researchers. Within this initiative it’s the university boards that are thinking of ways in which they can offer education jointly.”
Why this plan?
“The European Union wants to foster the integration of the Member States. That’s happening in many different ways, including in higher education. One example is the Erasmus+ exchange programme. The Universities Initiative is the idea of French President Emmanuel Macron. The rankings have traditionally been dominated by the American universities, and the Chinese universities are on the rise. In his view, it’s high time that the European universities started performing better. Member States have gradually come to the realisation that this initiative could possibly solve other problems as well.”
“Social cohesion in Europe, for example. Some Dutch institutions have too little capacity at present to be able to provide education to the growing number of students. But that doesn’t apply to all the institutions in Europe. If subjects or parts of a joint education curriculum are provided at other European institutions where the number of students is declining, many more options become available. It’s also about the differing values placed on diplomas. How do you ensure that they all have the same value everywhere in Europe?”
Is there a ‘European’ mindset behind that?
“Certain questions are of current concern in all Member States, so you can try to answer them jointly. One of those questions is how study programmes remain relevant to the changing labour market and how they can contribute to the transitions in sustainability and digitalisation. Can digitalisation contribute to flexible education for ‘lifelong learning’?
How do the alliances tackle those questions?
“They are all experimenting in their own way with the idea of a ‘European’ university. For instance, during the Covid pandemic they came up with a new form of international mobility: virtual mobility. It enables you to reach more students and staff, including those who are not taking part in an exchange programme under an Erasmus grant. And there are also alliances with radical plans, with students being able to make free use of the educational offerings at the participating universities. That means students can take a subject in France or Italy, for example, if it suits them. One of the alliances has even expressed the desire to merge into a single university.”
What form will an alliance of that kind take? Will it have its own board and participation council?
“They are considering that, but it’s a complicated issue. At present, the educational institutions are mostly collaborating as part of a foundation, but a new format has to be found. They have to become genuinely European universities, which nevertheless comply with the national laws and regulations.”
What needs to happen if this initiative is to be a success?
“There is no sustainable funding at the moment; that must change. Every alliance of five to fourteen institutions gets eight million euros from the European Commission every three years. That’s nowhere near enough, given the ambitious targets.”
Will more money be provided?
“Only if the Member States remain enthusiastic and if these alliances are also allowed to make use of the ‘ordinary’ funding of universities. Higher education institutions need to demonstrate how you can make innovations in education and tackle social problems with this initiative. If they collaborate effectively, there’s a chance that the European Union will make more funds available.”
HOP, Peer van Tetterode
- The European Universities Initiative started in late 2019 and comprises 340 higher education institutions across the European Union that have formed 44 alliances. Currently, twelve Dutch universities are taking part: Utrecht University, University of Twente, University of Amsterdam, Maastricht University, VU Amsterdam, Tilburg University, University of Groningen, Leiden University, Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, Radboud University, NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences and Erasmus University Rotterdam.
HOP, Peer van Tetterode