14 Nov 2019   |   News

Scramble begins to join next wave of European university alliances

Universities are out to cement fresh partnerships, as €120M second round of popular EU competition launches

The EU has opened the second round of its matchmaking scheme to create European universities, in which institutions will pool their expertise and resources to deliver new, joint curricula to students.

The new competition, which is accepting applications until February next year, has an increased budget of €120 million for 24 new university alliances. Each successful group will receive up to €5 million over three years to start implementing its plan.

European Commission officials radiate optimism about the competition, which has set off a matchmaking boom that is not just limited to the big universities.

A launch event in Brussels last week saw wide interest, with faculty members from all kinds of institutes across Europe scrambling to pull together new alliances.

Brussels is pitching the alliances to a higher education sector grappling with financial challenges that cry out for structural change.

“We give you the frame, it’s up to you to design the European Universities,” said Sophie Beernaerts, head of the commission’s department for the Erasmus+ programme.

It might not be typical in an academic setting to talk about mergers, alliances, strategy and synergies. But for institutions facing increasingly tight competition for students and money, that means looking in new places and in different ways.

“Think of these alliances as a ladder to launch Europe into the global scene,” said Themis Christophidou, European Commission director general for education.

The idea is also to force member states’ higher education systems to become more intertwined.

The commission says the scheme should eventually lead to joint degrees and allow students and researchers to travel between European institutes more easily.

Anyone trying to do that today will bump up against different legal systems and tuition fee regimes. Although Europe funds student exchanges through schemes such as Erasmus, fewer than 6 per cent of students spend time at other universities.

There will be plenty of red tape to overcome, said Jean Chambaz, president of Sorbonne University, which is leading one of the alliances formed in the first round, the 4EU+ European University group.

“We need less constraining regulations. We have to break down education barriers, even if it means member states lose a bit of their power, and it goes to the European Union,” Chambaz said.

Beernaerts said the competition is also about providing “more flexible career paths for teachers and researchers.”

“It’s important for non-academic staff, usually it’s only the researchers that get to travel to other universities,” said Costas Georgiadas, a student at Maastricht University.

Tips for success

The commission says universities should find their niche, whether it is fine art or cybersecurity, and make sure it connects with real-world demand.

Aping the successful first round proposals isn’t going to be enough. “Don’t try copy the first successful 17 alliances,” said Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, head of higher education policies and programmes at the commission’s education directorate. “And the best proposals should feel like they came from a true engagement between students and staff.”

Differentiating oneself from competitors does not necessarily mean going bigger.

“Be cautious, don’t go too fast. If you grow too much, you may not achieve your goals,” Debiais-Sainton said.

Daniela Trani, director of Young Universities for the Future of Europe, one of the alliances that received funding in the first round of the competition, advises against peppering applications with “jargon only you or your colleagues understand”. 

“My other tip will be welcomed by the financial administrators: don’t start too late with the budget. Content and budget need to be developed in parallel,” she said.

The feedback Trani received for her group’s proposal may be hard to top. “I told my story to two musicians on the gulf of Naples and they were in tears, they said ‘Europe needs this’,” she said.

For the others, it’s not musicians who need impressing, but the university rectors, deans and vice presidents the commission chooses to judge applications over a five-month period.

UK hanging in there

With Brexit looming, UK universities in particular are keen to put down fresh roots inside their main European networks.

They will be allowed stay in the competition, so long as the government clears the Brexit withdrawal agreement and pays their bills, said Beernaerts. “If there is a hard Brexit, UK applicants will no longer be eligible and that’s the end of the story,” she warned.

There is no apparent appetite to kick out British universities. “It would not be very clever if we excluded the UK, or Switzerland,” said Peter Greisler, head of higher education in Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Controversially, there is nothing preventing successful first round universities re-applying as part of a new configuration.

“Technically it’s allowed. But would I recommend it? No,” said Debiais-Sainton.

French universities scored highest in the first round, taking part 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. Hungary and Poland had five successful universities each. The only EU countries with no winners were Bulgaria, Estonia, Luxembourg and Slovakia.

Blazenka Divjak, Croatia’s minister of science and education, said the competition should be extended to the Western Balkan countries, which are queuing to join the EU.

“Please give them a chance to fully participate,” she said. “If we stick to the old ideas we’re going to kill this thing. We need new barrels and new wine. “

Among the unsuccessful candidates in the first round, 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.

But the group has dusted itself off and is back to have another crack. “To be selected this time, we will reduce the number of our activities to ensure that they are all implemented within the first three years, which is the main criticism we received from the evaluation experts,” Thilly said.

The partnerships could be further enabled by member state investment, Chambaz suggested. “Universities can’t run on one leg. I plead for matched funding,” he said.

Money from EU regional funds could support the alliances, suggested Michael Murphy, president of the European University Association. “Students should spend time in all those excellent labs in disadvantaged areas of Europe,” he said.

Impact of more flights

One thing it appears the commission has overlooked, however, is the impact on the environment of all this continental, criss-cross collaborating.

Extra flights may be harder to justify right now, at least in the eyes of an environmental movement across Europe that is encouraging people to stop flying.

“There is a goal of 50 per cent mobility of students between universities,” said Francois Germinet, president of the University of Cergy-Pontoise. “Everyone said this is out of reach and may cost too much.”

But he said it’s “always important to go to foreign countries, and if students move for six months or a year at a time, it’s not too much in terms of environmental impact,” said Germinet, whose university is part of the EUTOPIA alliance.

There are things universities can do to lessen negative impacts on the environment, said Germinet. “We have to invent better virtual networks and tools to interact more,” he said.

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