Don’t write off the European Universities Initiative too early

The pan-continental alliances face many issues, but Erasmus took three decades to attain its present success, says Anthony Forster 

March 9, 2023
Source: Alamy

As we enter the second four-year phase of the European Universities Initiative (EUI), questions continue to abound about its purpose and effectiveness. Is it too ambitious to expect a handful of transnational alliances of higher education institutions to boost European integration and accelerate the creation of a European education area? Is it fair that universities that haven’t formed an alliance are missing out on a share of the €1.1 billion (£0.98 billion), spread over six years, that the European Commission is distributing to those that have? Some commentators even worry about the consequences for the overall ecosystem of European higher education if European university alliances are too successful.

The EUI concept is an attractive one. Pooling multinational expertise, platforms and resources to deliver joint curricula or modules covering various disciplines gives rise to flexible curricula that students can personalise, alongside the informal learning experiences that accrue by studying across European campuses.

But there is no doubt that there are significant obstacles to the success of EUIs. Clearly the funding model is unhelpful. The piecemeal nature of Erasmus+ project-based funding for such a long-term initiative is very challenging. As Ludovic Thilly, coordinator of the EC2U Alliance, says, the administrative burden of applying for project funding is “very much undermining” capacity for core activities, posing the risk that the initiative will “just die”.

There is also no doubt that the amount of funding provided does not match the scale of anyone’s ambition. For instance, it covers only 50 per cent of the costs associated with the Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) alliance, of which my institution, the University of Essex, is a member. It means that universities can engage only to the extent that they can afford to.

The scale of federalist ambition to create a new single European university entity has also put off some universities, as has Brexit. This is why Essex is one of only three UK universities (alongside Edinburgh and Warwick) that joined as full members of an alliance when they were first launched in 2019.

There is also a need for sustained leadership at the EU, national and university levels. University leaders need to address internal obstacles and capacity to engage with such an ambitious initiative, while EU actions are required to remove barriers, especially in relation to quality assurance. Progress so far has been slow, and trust between national quality assurance systems is at best nascent: currently, there is no cross-border accreditation of programmes. Belatedly, however, the European Commission is funding various projects to develop quality criteria that would lead to the award of a European degree label and is supporting the exploration of different governance models and legal status.

National government buy-in to the benefits of the EUIs is also variable, with France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain among the most generous nations in providing match funding. Other member states provide little or no extra resource. As for the UK, its government is outright hostile to EUIs, seeing them as detracting from engagement with other parts of the world.

There is also an unhelpful expectation from the European Commission that all alliances will proceed at the speed it dictates, rather than allowing them to grow at their own pace and report progress accordingly.

Despite the challenges, though, I am sure that the alliances are here to stay. There is nothing unusual about EU initiatives with unclear road maps and inadequate funding, yet with an unmistakable direction of travel. As H. E. Gaël Veyssière, the French ambassador to Croatia, has noted, the Erasmus staff and student mobility scheme started in 1987 with just 3,200 participants. Yet, 35 years on, 13 million people have participated, supported with a budget of €26.2 billion (£23.3 billion), and Erasmus polls as one of two biggest success stories of EU integration. The number of EUIs has recently increased from 17 to 44 and the number of participating universities from 114 to 340.

We are also seeing a consolidation within EUIs, with their connections both deepening and widening to engage universities in non-EU countries such as Iceland, Norway, Serbia, Turkey and the UK. There is also an emerging gravitational pull to the EUIs as enhanced cooperation in the alliances is (unsurprisingly) leading to further cooperation in other areas. The original alliances, in particular, are undergoing an important shift from “being” to “doing”, with a welcome focus on global and societal challenges and emerging impact.

Vanessa Debais-Sainton, head of the European Commission’s Higher Education Unit, has indicated that a discussion is at last beginning about longer-term funding. This is encouraging, but funding is a means, not an end. Most universities have a much wider set of goals beyond the commission-funded work, such as enhancing their own autonomous missions and pushes towards internationalisation. Moreover, not everything EUIs do in this start-up phase will be successful, and the commission is sensibly committed to recognising this.

Although alliances will have to overcome many issues, we need to take the long view and keep focused on the very significant benefits universities can deliver through this initiative. The success of the EUI may not yet be certain, but it would clearly be a mistake to write off such a potentially transformational initiative too early.

Anthony Forster is vice-chancellor of the University of Essex.

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