EU announces first ‘European Universities’

27 Jun 2019 | News

Seventeen new multi-university alliances will get €5 million each to develop joint degrees. Three UK winners will be kicked out in event of no deal Brexit

EU commissioner for education Tibor Navracsics. Photo: European Commission

The first 17 group winners of an EU €85 million matchmaking scheme to create ‘European Universities’ in which institutions will pool their expertise and resources to deliver new, joint curricula to students, have been announced.

In total, 114 universities from 24 countries were successful in the first round of applications. The selection ranges from universities of applied sciences, technical universities and fine arts to comprehensive and research-intensive universities. Each group will receive up to €5 million over three years to start implementing their plans.

“These new alliances can be role models, making education more attractive and inclusive for the next generation of students,” said Tibor Navracsics, EU commissioner for education.

The scheme in part aims to boost smaller universities that do not see the same demand from prospective students as some of the continent’s most selective schools, like Oxford or the Technical University of Munich. A second round of the competition is scheduled for the autumn.

The European Commission says the scheme should eventually lead to joint degrees and allow students and researchers to travel between European institutes more easily. The example given was a student reading European studies being able to take history in Brussels, EU law in Rome and economics in Warsaw.

While some alliances are comprehensive and cover all disciplines, others are focused on specific areas such as urban coastal sustainability, social sciences or global health.

One of the largest groups to win is the ECIU University alliance, made up of 11 universities from countries including Italy, Portugal, Lithuania, Germany and Norway.

The alliance’s successful pitch involved a shift away from traditional educational rewards like degrees, to something more challenge-based, said Olga Wessels, head of the ECIU Office in Brussels. “We wondered if it might not be too experimental; too novel to succeed. But, clearly the commission was interested,” she said.

Explaining her group’s winning concept, she said that universities would initially set small research challenges to students, teachers and researchers to solve over a few days or weeks. The concept will then grow to bigger, so-called ‘strategic challenges’ that will take six months or more.

Reacting to the success of the 1EUROPE project, which brings together universities from Bologna, Edinburgh, and Kraków, Peter Lievens, vice rector at Belgium’s KU Leuven and coordinator of the group said, “It is a clever way to get us all to work more together. It’s going to be a learning process for everyone.”

The 4EU+ alliance, made up of the Sorbonne University in Paris, Charles University in Prague, and the universities of Copenhagen, Heidelberg, Milan and Warsaw, was also successful. “Our research teams are already working on different topics, such as cancer, ageing, metabolic diseases, sustainable development and AI,” said Lenka Rovná, vice rector for European Affairs at Charles University Prague.

Serge Fdida, Sorbonne’s vice president for international development, said he was thrilled at “a very high mark” from evaluators. The project will look for additional funding from the French government.  

The new alliances "can truly contribute to the realignment of education in Europe," said Henk Kummeling, rector of Utrecht University, which is part of an alliance with Trinity College Dublin, Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University, and the universities of Barcelona and Montpellier called Charm EU. "The agreements on exchanges are currently almost always one-to-one. We are now making arrangements with five universities about making educational resources and teaching capacity available."

Among the unsuccessful candidates, Ludovic Thilly, coordinator of the EC2U Alliance of universities from Portugal, Romania, Italy and Finland, was left to rue his group missing out in the evaluation by one per cent.

“Very frustrating and all my thoughts go to the 120-plus colleagues from the six universities who invested time and energy in what we considered a very ambitious – maybe too ambitious – alliance,” Thilly said.

“[But] we already have alliance activities and we will surely re-apply. We did not get the experts’ comments yet so it is too early to know how to improve our project,” he said.

France and Germany feature strongly

The EU scheme follows a proposal in 2017 by French president Emmanuel Macron to create 20 cross border university networks, of about four partners each.

Macron’s involvement has given the initiative additional credibility and cachet in higher education circles, and not least in France, which produced the highest number of applications for the EU scheme.

French universities scored highest in the competition, appearing in 16 successful alliances. Germany has the next best representation, with 14 universities. Other big winners included Italy, with 11 institutes winning, and Spain with nine. Officials in Hungary and Poland, meanwhile, will feel very happy with five successful universities each.

With Brexit looming, the three successful UK universities in the competition will be relieved to have put down fresh roots inside their main European networks. However, UK universities would “be forced to leave their projects” if the country exits the EU without a deal, a commission spokesman confirmed.

The only EU countries with no winners were Bulgaria, Estonia, Luxembourg and Slovakia. Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-intensive Universities said, “The competition should and must be about quality, not about the fact that every country gets something. So if some countries have been unsuccessful it is important that their ministries work closely with applicants to support them in the second round as much as possible.”

Iron out differences

The alliances are expected to be imperfect works in progress – at least in the beginning.

The networks "will require new transnational academic governance models, new funding arrangements and challenging institutional cultural changes. This is a big political challenge," said European University Association President-elect Michael Murphy.

Universities will bump up against different legal systems and tuition fee regimes. There will be red tape to overcome, and universities will quickly discover it’s not straightforward to establish joint degrees, said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. However, the point of the exercise is to reveal where systems are fragmented, with a view to ironing them out.  

“The alliances will act as test beds for the identification of these barriers,” a commission spokesman said. “They will provide the commission with statements of concrete problems that it will then address together with the member states. Joint degrees will surely be among them. There is goodwill among all member states and national parliaments to address any problems.”

National states “must deliver to cut down on red tape around international programme quality assurance, and the enabling of joint degrees,” said Palmowksi. “That is actually far more important than the money that is at stake in this competition.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up