26 Mar 2018   |   News

The deals are coming: ‘4EU’ alliance signals start of match-making among European universities

An alliance between four of Europe’s leading universities - Sorbonne, Heidelberg, Charles and Warsaw - is the first of several expected cross-border deals following French president Emmanuel Macron’s plan for EU academic networks

 Sorbonne University in the Quartier Latin in Paris

If universities were publicly traded companies, financial analysts would right now be forecasting a wave of merger mania and share prices would be jumping on speculation about the next big deal. But this news is about academia, where things proceed much more politely.

The announcement on 21 March of an alliance among four of Europe’s top universities was the first in what many expect to become a series of new deals in the university sector.  The “4EU” alliance among Sorbonne University in Paris, Charles University in Prague, and the universities of Heidelberg and Warsaw aims eventually to boost collaboration in research, infrastructure, student mobility and academic curricula. Though not a legally binding agreement, a declaration of intent was signed on 10 March in Paris by the presidents of the four institutions.

The agreement was two years in the making and builds on existing ties among the four partners, according to Serge Fdida, Sorbonne’s vice president for international development. “The objective is to accelerate our cooperation among students and faculty,” he said. At a meeting in June, the universities plan to agree on the first concrete initiatives to get the cooperation rolling.

The announcement comes as many other universities around Europe are talking about similar cross-border alliances. It follows a proposal last September by French president Emmanuel Macron to create 20 cross-border European University Networks, of about four partners each, to strengthen academic performance and boost European cooperation. Shortly after he put forward the plan in a speech at the Sorbonne, the European Commission gave its tentative blessing – albeit with a more leisurely timetable of 2025 than the 2020 target Macron envisions.

The partnership prom

Since then, like teenagers not wanting to be left without a date at the school dance, senior academics have been criss-crossing the continent in search of partners.

Part of the motivation is financial. By joining forces, universities hope they will improve the odds of getting more EU and national grants, while French officials have suggested that the EU provides special grants of €5 million to cover the administrative costs of the alliances.

Another factor in the mix is the prospect of Brexit, which has panicked UK universities into formalising long-standing continental ties.

And more generally, universities face mounting financial pressure and international competition for government and corporate research funding, even as demand rises for world-class research and degrees.

“There’s a lot of interest” among universities in forging alliances, observes Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “The hope is that finally it will be possible to overcome some of the barriers that have made change so difficult.”

For august institutions blessed with big bureaucracies, formal collaboration is bound to be hard (though individual researchers have long found ways to do it one to one). Past alliances have often faded into dead letters, because faculty did not buy into them, governments failed to support them, or new rectors were not as keen as the original signatories.

Learning from this experience, on 23 March the Guild published recommendations for how the new deals could work better. One suggestion is to base them, “on clear strategic objectives and committed leadership.”  The Guild also urges a long-term perspective, with minimum government support of 10 years and a five-year review.

How 4EU will work

Fdida said the 4EU alliance started with a long history of the four universities collaborating ad hoc in areas such as Erasmus student mobility, collaborative research projects and other ventures. Planning began two years ago, and a series of workshops fleshed out the details. While 4EU was not motivated by the Macron proposal, the group would be pleased, “If we could be seen as a pilot,” Fdida said.

The partners represent a big slice of Europe’s scientific and educational prowess, with a combined total of more than 185,000 students and 38,000 staff. Sorbonne, a recent merger of two of France’s top universities, has the top-ranked mathematics department in Europe. One of the precursor universities, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, on its own ranked 40th in the 2017 Shanghai world university rankings. Heidelberg ranked 42nd in the world, Charles around 200th and Warsaw around 300th.  The four universities cover every discipline, but all four are highly rated in physics, maths, chemistry and biology.

Fdida said the alliance will have “light governance” and “flexible” operations, drawing on staff and students for specific initiatives. These could include collaborating on cloud or data network infrastructure. Each university already has cloud services, and they hope to accelerate delivery of services by working together.

They could also cooperate on research infrastructure and library services, perhaps sharing resources rather than building them individually. Making it easier for students to move among the universities is important and Fdida said the partners have agreed to provide accommodation for each others’ visiting students.

To encourage bottom-up initiatives, the universities will give “very high priority” in allocating resources to collaborative efforts, said Fdida. But there is no intention to discourage cooperation with other universities. “This is not a closed club,” he said.