07 Mar 2019   |   News

European universities battle for €60M funding in giant matchmaking competition

EU receives 54 cross-border proposals to create new shared campuses

Photo: Bigstock

European universities have been busy matchmaking and as a result the European Commission has received 54 joint submissions for its new €60 million scheme to build ‘Networks of European Universities.’

The competition has inspired over 200 universities to sign declarations of intent to boost collaboration in research, infrastructure, student mobility and academic curricula.

While universities team up all the time, the Commission says the goal of this particular programme is to boost European cooperation and strengthen academic performance.

The €60 million will be awarded to 12 teams in its first year. The initiative builds on itself, said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “The purpose is to enhance exchange as part of a phenomenal step change in how universities work with each other,” he said. “The proposals are the work of a huge number of meetings at all levels of participating universities. Without a doubt, new bonds of trust will have formed and new ideas inspired.”

The scheme is also intended to help smaller, regional universities that do not have the same demand from prospective students as some of the continent’s most selective schools, like Oxford, the Technical University of Munich or KU Leuven. Those universities have the ability to recruit high-performing students from anywhere, insulating them somewhat from funding difficulties.

It is hoped the scheme will lead to composite degrees and allow students and researchers to travel between European institutes with ease. 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.

Although Europe funds student exchanges through schemes such as Erasmus, fewer than 6 per cent of students spend time at other universities.

Many of the deals involve long-term partners. One of the largest submissions is the ECIU University alliance, an association of 13 universities from countries including Italy, Portugal, Lithuania, Germany and Norway.

“We’ve worked together for over 20 years so it made sense to apply together,” said Olga Wessels, head of the ECIU Office in Brussels. The group includes one partner from the UK, Nottingham University, which, because of Brexit, will need to bring its own funding. 

The alliance’s pitch: “We aim to change the way of delivering education from degree based to challenge based,” Wessels said.

If funded, the ECIU University project would kick-off in November. In the first year, the group would start with several small cross border research challenges involving students, teachers and researchers that last for only a few days or weeks. This will scale up to bigger, so-called ‘strategic challenges’ that will take six months or more.

With 13 participating institutes, any funding would stretch thinly, but the group can investigate top up funding from government.

A formal collaboration, with a new legal identity, would be a complicated path, Wessels said. “We’ve been in touch with several ministries for advice. There are some restrictions on transnational universities, so we really hope for the commitment of the member states to support the development of these networks.”

Merger mania

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. Shortly after he put forward the plan in a speech at the Sorbonne, the Commission adopted it, with a timetable of 2024. 

Macron’s involvement has given the initiative additional credibility and cachet in higher education circles, and not least in France, with 21 of the proposals involving at least one French university.

Other universities, which ordinarily would be eager participants in EU research projects are saying, ‘not so fast’. Some are holding back until the second round of the competition later this year.

UK universities are hampered by uncertainty around Brexit. “I assume many will have stepped back. We’re all working a little in the dark,” said Seán Hand, deputy pro vice chancellor for Europe at Warwick University, which is involved in a six-member alliance called EUTOPIA.

Other UK universities appear to prefer a one-to-one approach to shoring up their continental ties. Imperial College London, for example, has created a joint maths laboratory in London with France’s biggest government research body, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). A similar partnership is being finalised by Cambridge University and the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

For some UK universities, keen to avoid European relationships falling to bits, the timing of the competition is perfect.

But the choice, on the other side, to include the UK in alliances has not been straightforward. “It’s tricky because we don’t know what’s going to happen with Brexit. We don’t know what the future status of the country will be; or whether it will be a programme member of Erasmus anymore,” Wessels said.

Charm the EU

Already, the intense spate of deal-making over the last year will have gone some distance towards the EU’s wish to see universities work more closely together.

“We would really like to get the funding of course, but I think we want to continue our collaboration either way,” 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.

The alliance spells out its intentions clearly through its name: the Charm European University, or Charm-EU. “Perhaps it’s one little score already for the name,” said Kummeling.

The group’s pitch is all about “finding new ways to reach new students. We want to go to the professionals, who might want extra education. We want to break up the traditional disciplines,” he said.

Kummeling says a legal identity for the group is not under consideration for now. “I’m a lawyer, so I know how time consuming all these procedures can be. We have to deal with this entire project as if it were research. So we’re trying new ways of doing things. We have to put some research into it to see what could be the new financial and legal structures we’d need. But for now, we’ll just work and see how it goes,” he said.

U!REKA

Another group of six universities have banded together as U!REKA. One of the participants, Geleyn Meijer, rector of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, says the strength of their submission is the long history of collaboration between the members.

“I think it’s an essential element that you are together already – that there is common ground. It’s a bridge too far if you’re not; it’s very difficult to have dreamt up a new one just for this competition,” said Meijer.

In addition to the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the U!REKA team includes: the Edinburgh Napier University, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki, Oslo Metropolitan University and University College Ghent.

“People leading this know one another for a while; we get together on a regular basis,” he said. The group has already applied for various EU projects together. “We have a real collaboration – it’s not just a general exchange,” Meijer said.

Founded in 2016, the U!REKA consortium’s focus is the built environment. “We are interested in cities and cities’ questions, including new research for smart sewers and transport,” Meijer said.

The spectre of Brexit did not make any of the partners think twice about including Edinburgh, Meijer added. “No matter what the Brexit outcome is, we really believe cooperation is pivotal for Europe. We should stick to our beliefs. And, you never know, it may prove to be a positive thing to have a British university. We know the EU wants to keep close to these UK institutes,” he said.

Another competing group is the EC2U Alliance, involving Coimbra (Portugal), Alexandru Ioan Cuza of Iasi (Romania), Pavia (Italy), Poitiers (France), Salamanca (Spain) and Turku (Finland).

“We worked for a year and a half to prepare our bid,” said Ludovic Thilly, the alliance’s coordinator. “We are all long-standing partners with a history of cooperation. Now, the link between us is stronger than before.”

The institutions have already introduced a special certificate for students who travel between member institutes.

“What we have in common is that we are all located in medium-sized cities. So in each of the six cities, we are the only universities, meaning we already have a very special link with all our citizens,” he said.

Judging the competition

With so many deals, involving so many partners, it is tricky for university executives to weigh up the competition.

“Looking at it from the outside, some alliances feel circumstantial. They came together in order to make a statement for this competition, but not necessarily to engage in profound change. Some of the bids don’t really absolutely conform to reaching out to north, south, east, west partners,” said Hand.

Hand’s group, EUTOPIA, includes the Free University of Brussels (VUB), the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and the universities of Gothenburg, Paris-Seine, and Ljubljana.

“With us, you genuinely get universities wanting to work in a student-centred way,” he said. “There are projects where students themselves are designing their own learning. There is also this strong regional aspect to what we’ve put together.”

The 4EU+ alliance, made up of the Sorbonne University in Paris, Charles University in Prague, and the universities of Copenhagen, Heidelberg, Milan and Warsaw, comes up in conversations as one of the teams people feel have a strong chance of winning.

“[We’re] confident, as this is not an artificial, opportunistic initiative but [a] very careful” one, said Serge Fdida, Sorbonne’s vice president for international development. “The proposal intends to move beyond a simple university alliance and create a truly integrated university system.”

Years from now, the question will be whether this initiative has strengthened Europe’s higher education, or simply introduced a new stratification.

“Are we creating a new league table of universities? It would be an unintended consequence, although student unions have voiced concerns around this,” said Hand. “However, we think the overall effect can be inclusive, rather than exclusive.”

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