25 Oct 2018   |   News

EU launches €30M pilot scheme to create networks of European Universities

Alliances are sprouting up to take advantage of the funding, but universities wonder how far the money will go

The European Commission on Wednesday launched a scheme to promote a stronger sense of European identity among students and boost the attractiveness of European degrees, in a €30 million scheme to build ‘Networks of European Universities.’

The funding will support the creation of six cross-border alliances of at least three universities each, along the lines proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron last year.

While universities collaborate ad hoc all the time in Europe, the Commission says the goal of this particular programme, which has existed as an idea for years, is to strengthen academic performance and boost European cooperation.

“The consensus is that European universities are not competitive on a global level – even the best we have are far behind ones in Asia and the US,” a Commission official said.

The money will pay for an exchange of students, researchers and even administrative staff. A student reading European studies, for example, could take history in Brussels, EU law in Rome and economics in Warsaw. The Commission says students or staff should attempt to learn the language of the country they live in.

The scheme follows a proposal last September by Macron to create 20 cross-border university networks. The Commission responded quickly, setting the target for 2024.  

Applicants have to submit applications by 28 February next year, with alliances starting later in the European year. A second round should also be run in 2019 with a full roll out foreseen under the next long-term, seven-year EU budget from 2021. 

EU funding will be a small part of what’s needed for these partnerships to thrive, the Commission says; member states will need to top up.

“You could maybe do some research with that money, although you won’t be able to run very far,” said Luk Van Langenhove, academic commissioner for international institutes and networks at the Free University of Brussels. For institutions with big bureaucracies, formal collaboration will be harder, Van Langenhove adds.

One hope is that these alliances improve participants’ odds of getting more EU and national grants.

“This can be a stepping-stone. You could imagine university alliances submitting a joint proposal to Horizon Europe,” the EU’s 2021-2027 research programme, Van Langenhove said.

Applicants will need a good geographical spread in their network. “We don’t have a strict quota but we do ask networks to be inclusive,” the EU official said. The aim is that institutions in poorer member states join in.

Van Langenhove is involved in building an alliance that includes his university, the Université Paris Seine, the University of Ljubljana and Warwick University.

UK universities are welcome to participate in the EU scheme, although this could change in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Other alliances are sprouting up to bid for funding. These include the “4EU” alliance among Sorbonne University in Paris, Charles University in Prague, and the universities of Heidelberg and Warsaw. Then there’s the “U4+”, involving universities of Gent, Groningen, Göttingen, Uppsala and Tartu.

The Commission does not appear to rule out funding brand new institutions down the line if the idea proves successful. “We hope universities will integrate more and more progressively. At this stage, we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s really needed. Our horizon would be 2025 to see if all this makes sense,” an EU official said.

The scheme could, ultimately, spur governments and agencies to reduce red tape around student and researcher mobility, something that is “badly needed”, said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Brussels-based Guild of European Research Intensive Universities. “I’m very confident that this has a huge potential to unleash new ideas for collaboration amongst universities across Europe,” he said.

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