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Challenges for ‘European Universities’ revealed by survey

A survey of more than 200 higher education institutions across Europe has found that the need to provide additional resources, considerable amounts of co-funding and ensure long-term sustainability are the biggest challenges for participating in the European Universities Initiative.

A lack of resources is also high on the list of reasons for institutions not to participate in the European Universities Initiative, together with time constraints, as well as the difficulty in finding partners, the survey found.

Among responding institutions that participated in the pilot calls of the European Universities Initiative, many received some sort of external support, mostly in the form of information sessions or training for proposal writing. Only a minority received extra funding for the application and-or for the development and implementation after successful selection at European Union level, the new survey by the European University Association (EUA) found.

“This is an indication of the uneven playing field for higher education institutions across Europe participating in the competition,” the EUA says.

Higher grants and follow-up funding, the elimination of legal and administrative obstacles, the development of the research dimension and increasing synergies with other EU funding programmes are the five top recommendations declared as very important by the majority of respondents.

Some 68% of universities perceive legal obstacles as a challenge to participation and 59% cite administrative obstacles to collaboration via joint accreditation programmes as a barrier.

“Universities expect many benefits from participating in the European Universities Initiative with enhancing the quality of learning and teaching being at the top, which is in line with their general internationalisation priorities,” the EUA says.

In a position paper on the future of the European Universities Initiative, also published on 27 April, the EUA calls on governments and policy-makers responsible for higher education and research to “work together to address and eventually remove the remaining obstacles and work towards greater compatibility of systems across Europe. This must build on the work that has already been done and that continues in the framework of the Bologna Process and the European Research Area”.

For about two-thirds of survey respondents, six expected benefits are very important: increasing the attractiveness of the university, visibility and international standing, boosting student and staff mobility, strengthening the links between different university missions, developing a more strategic approach towards international collaboration and helping to build Europe and foster European integration and cohesion.

The European Universities consist of “bottom-up networks of universities across the EU which will enable students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and contribute to the international competitiveness of European universities”, according to the European Commission.

The first 17 transnational European Universities were selected in June 2019 and a second pilot was launched in November 2019. But the European Universities Initiative will be fully rolled out and scaled up under the next Erasmus programme from 2021-27.

It is now more than two years since the European Council called on member states and EU institutions to start building a true European Education Area. The European Universities Initiative is a key pillar of this project in line with a vision in which faculty mobility and recognition of diplomas transnationally in EU member states are key.

Deep level of integration

This European Universities network programme is full of ambition for a deep level of integration that envisages, for instance, that in a partnership on European studies a student could go to Paris to study law, to Rome for economics and Athens for history as part of the same degree programme, attending either in person or virtually, with a guarantee that the qualification would be systematically recognised across borders.

It could also mean universities going one step further and cooperating on designing the curriculum together and ensuring they have complementary facilities, for instance for research, rather than duplicating.

“We would like them to develop jointly long-term strategies for the next 20-30 years,” a European Commission senior official close to the European Universities Initiative told University World News last year.

The EUA sees the European Universities Initiative as a means to building deep, strategic alliances between universities.

“Its scale and high level of ambition make it well suited also as a testbed to identify and highlight challenges and obstacles to transnational cooperation. This can lead to new discoveries and innovation in higher education cooperation, with benefits for learning and teaching, research, innovation and university engagement with society.

“The European Universities Initiative can thus give an additional push towards system-level reforms, driven by policy processes such as the Bologna Process to the benefit of all. The initiative can also be helpful in facilitating a better coordination between European higher education and research policies,” the EUA says.

“Deepening transnational university collaboration has great potential to strengthen European higher education and research and its international competitiveness, as well as European cooperation. European collaboration and solidarity are of ever greater importance due to the coronavirus crisis. Strengthening Europe’s innovation capacity, to which universities contribute greatly, will be crucial for recovery and for building a sustainable future.”

The EUA is calling for joint calls for the European Universities Initiative under the next generation of EU funding programmes (2021-27).

Interest in participation is high

The interest of the EUA survey respondents in the European Universities Initiative is high. Some 59% are participating in the pilot calls and another 27% wish to do so in the future, while only 13% do not have any plans for participation so far.

The survey was conducted in early 2020 to map the state of play of universities’ international engagement, explore in particular the topic of international strategic institutional partnerships and collect views about the European Universities Initiative.

The survey elicited 219 valid responses from higher education institutions from 34 systems across Europe.

The sample is uneven as the number of responses from some systems compared to their size is relatively low (France, Poland and Romania, for instance), while others are highly represented (Italy, Germany and Hungary, for instance). This has to be taken into account when looking at the results, the EUA said.

Internationalisation has been a strategic issue and an integral part of the activities at many institutions for quite a while, as also shown by the EUA Trends study. In this sample, 53% of respondents indicate that it is part of their general strategy, while 43% have a specific internationalisation strategy.

More than half of responding higher education institutions have 10% or more international students and more than a quarter have 10% or more international staff.

The higher education institutions engage in a variety of international activities, with 90% or more respondents citing student credit mobility, EU research projects and staff mobility. Some 80% work on attracting international degree students and about a quarter of respondents collaborate on joint degree programmes, other learning and teaching projects and bilateral research activities, the EUA reported.

Multilateral research collaboration outside EU programmes are mentioned by about half of respondents.

Higher education institutions work with a variety of different partners abroad for different purposes and in different contexts. Most collaboration takes place between institutions with similar profiles, followed by collaboration between institutions with different but complementary profiles, the EUA reported.

Almost all institutions in the sample have partners in several other world regions beyond Europe, making them truly global actors, the EUA reported.

Top partner regions

When asked about their top three partner regions in the world, most higher education institutions in the sample put the EU first.

Almost half of respondents have North America among their top three partner regions and about one third indicated China among their three priority regions, the EUA reported.

About three-quarters collaborate with partners in Europe outside the EU, Asia (other than China, India or the Middle East), China and South and Central America. Close to two-thirds work with Africa and more than half of respondents collaborate with the Middle East, India and Australia-New Zealand-Oceania.

EU programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 are essential for university collaboration with partners abroad, far more than other frameworks, the survey demonstrates.

“This shows the added value of EU programmes and their essential role in the internationalisation of higher education institutions in Europe,” the EUA says.

Developing strategic partnerships

Developing strategic partnerships with a selected number of higher education institutions abroad is among the top five priorities for internationalisation for almost two-thirds of respondents, right after enhancing the quality of learning and teaching and attracting students from abroad.

This is followed by the aim of enhancing the quality of research, which is mentioned by more than half of the respondents.

Many universities have long-term strategic collaborations with partners abroad involving a collaboration with one or more partner organisations that goes beyond a specific project or student exchange programme. Alliances developed under the European Universities Initiative are only one example of such collaborations, the EUA said.

Almost half of the respondents have three or more such partnerships, and 78% of partnerships are multilateral, comprising several institutions from different countries.

Most partnerships encompass several university missions, with learning and teaching being most often covered. Those working on several missions most often combine learning and teaching with research, followed by learning and teaching combined with innovation and then learning and teaching combined with societal outreach, the survey found.

Staff mobility, closely followed by student mobility, are most often mentioned as activities of such partnerships, in line with the focus on learning and teaching of many of them. While more than 90% of respondents engage in EU research projects, these are only part of a bit less than half of the international strategic institutional partnerships captured by the survey.


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