Are ‘European universities’ really possible?

A 2017 speech by Emmanuel Macron on European identity has led to the creation of an initial 17 pan-continental consortia involving 114 universities. But do they amount to anything more than yet more vacuous memoranda of understanding? David Matthews reports

May 14, 2020
Patchwork map of Europe
Source: Istock montage

It is being hailed in Brussels as a “revolution” in European higher education.

Last June, 17 new “European universities” were anointed, part of a grand plan by French president Emmanuel Macron with the less than modest ambition of breathing new life into the faltering European project.

There will be a European University of Social Sciences, a European University of the Seas and even a European University for Smart Urban Coastal Sustainability. But these grand titles won’t adorn any physical signage outside any shiny new buildings because these are not new institutions as such. Rather, they are groupings of between four and 11 existing institutions from all corners of the continent.

Rank and file academics’ eyes could be excused for glazing over at this point. Scroll through any university’s website and you’ll find no shortage of supposedly groundbreaking “partnerships” or “memoranda of understanding” with other institutions, typically illustrated by an awkward photograph of institutional leaders at a signing ceremony.

But advocates of Macron’s European universities insist that these partnerships are different. “This is something special,” says Thomas Jørgensen, a senior policy coordinator at the European University Association (EUA).

Ambitions vary, but some participating institutions look forward to a future in which they are simply one “campus” of an overarching pan-continental university. “The objective is to create inter-university campuses where students, staff and researchers enjoy seamless mobility”, either physically or digitally, says Sophia Eriksson Waterschoot, director for youth, education and Erasmus+ at the European Commission.

The first 17 of these partnerships will be funded to the tune of €85 million (£75 million), and the commission is already judging applications for a second round, backed by a further €120 million. Some national governments have also agreed to match EU funding with their own; France has pledged €100 million over 10 years for French participating universities.

Competition to be involved is fierce: fewer than one in three applications was successful in the first round, and there are even more applicants for the second (the winners are scheduled to be revealed in July).

The genesis of the idea came in a September 2017 speech by Macron, then fresh from resoundingly defeating the far-right, anti-EU Marine Le Pen in the French presidential run-off and eager to present himself as the saviour of Europe from populistic nationalism. At the Sorbonne University in Paris, he called for a “network of universities across Europe, with programmes that have all their students study abroad and take classes in at least two languages”, offering “real European semesters and real European diplomas” while also acting as “drivers of educational innovation”. He hoped that at least 20 such institutions would be established by 2024.

At the time, though, there was no detailed plan waiting in the wings about what this would mean in practice. Jan-Martin Wiarda, a German education journalist, has reported that some in the French government believed the idea was the brainchild of Macron’s wife, Brigitte.

Macron’s Sorbonne proposal enthused about how European universities would imbue their students with fresh European identity, and the European Commission – the EU’s policymaking machine – swiftly seized on the idea. But while “European identity” remains one of the initiative’s aims, it is only one of many more that have been adopted.

“Few of these networks have a European identity pillar in them,” observes Jørgensen, who is helping to lead the EUA’s response to the initiative. Instead, the idea now is more that they will become “testbeds for the universities of the future”, as the commission's Waterschoot puts it. So when the EU wants to roll out a new education or research policy – an EU-wide student card, for example, or a new open access policy – it will use these networks to trial it, and likely back this with extra money, Jørgensen suspects.

“We’re the guinea pigs,” agrees Laura Howard, director of the internationalisation of education at the European University of the Seas (Sea-EU), an alliance of the universities of Cádiz, Western Brittany, Kiel, Gdańsk, Split and Malta.

The pioneering 17 will scope out how to dismantle barriers to the free flow of students and academics between their different “campuses”, according to Howard. The dream is of a world in which a “student would register at the university [Sea-EU], and decide to do a semester here [Cádiz], go to Kiel for a year, then decide to do a semester in Poland”, she says.

“The first and most obvious barrier is language,” she says. To overcome this, all Sea-EU universities are going to teach more in English, although Howard stresses they still want students to learn the local language while abroad.

There is an “irony” that just after Brexit, the creation of European universities – itself, in part, a response to the UK’s exit from the bloc – is speeding the spread of English in continental lecture halls, says Volker Balli, secretary general of 4EU+, a European university made of up six big, comprehensive research universities: Charles, Heidelberg, Copenhagen, Milan, Warsaw and Sorbonne. But 4EU+ also plans to step up teaching in English to smooth student mobility. “It’s an issue, how to balance having English as a lingua franca...while still giving appropriate space for the national languages,” Balli says.

Another barrier is financial. Currently, the Erasmus+ exchange scheme funds a maximum of only 12 months abroad per degree, erecting “financial barriers” in front of a truly multi-campus experience, thinks Howard.

The emphasis of the European universities programme is not only on physical exchange, however. Some alliances want to link their students digitally. One partnership, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU), will use the funding to pilot an online platform via which its students – typically at the graduate level – can work together on real-world problems posted by public authorities or businesses.

For example, the city of Barcelona might submit an engineering challenge about how it can deal with big fluctuations in waste water, explains Sander Lotze, project leader for the consortium of 11 universities. “We are not talking only about a nice academic exercise,” he says. “[The solutions] have to be usable for the city of Barcelona.”

Another common aim is to permit academics to circulate more freely. One idea under consideration is to allow faculty to work for a semester at partner universities, even when they aren’t on sabbatical, explains Vanessa Scherrer, the main coordinator of Civica, a consortium focused on social sciences that comprises Bocconi University, the Central European University, Sciences Po, the Stockholm School of Economics, the European University Institute in Florence, the Hertie School in Berlin and Romania’s National University of Political Studies and Public Administration.

There are limits to how far European universities want to integrate. While some consortia plan to coordinate their research strategies – members of 4EU+, for instance, will not set up new research centres investigating fields that are already covered elsewhere in the consortium in order to avoid duplicating efforts – this aspiration isn’t universal. And none of the partnerships that spoke to Times Higher Education are contemplating the kind of financial cross-subsidies that flow between the faculties or campuses of an actual university.

Still, several consortia are lobbying the commission to explore the creation of a new type of pan-European legal entity into which their constituent institutions could be merged, enabling them to award degrees and employ staff without the pesky friction of negotiating multiple, differing national regulatory frameworks.

The advantage for students would be a degree that showed employers that they had studied in multiple countries, says Robin Mason, pro vice-chancellor (international) at the University of Birmingham, one of seven members of the European University for Well-Being (EUniWell). With such a degree, “you just instantly stand out from the crowd”, he enthuses.

Currently a fifth of Birmingham students study abroad. Mason wants that to rise to a half, with a “good number” enjoying stints at EUniWell partners, the universities of Florence, Cologne, Leiden and Nantes, as well as Sweden’s Linnaeus University and Hungary’s Semmelweis University.

Merged institutions would offer advantages for academics, too. Academics who are EU citizens already have the freedom to work anywhere they want within the EU without a visa. But that will soon no longer apply to the UK. Moreover, there are practical difficulties associated with even being a visiting scholar at another campus. “Let’s say I want to go and spend three to six months working with the economists at Cologne,” explains Mason, himself an economist. “At the moment, that would be very difficult. I wouldn’t have access to any of Cologne’s systems. I wouldn’t have access to their library. Sure, I can travel to Cologne, but, working at the university, I wouldn’t have a place.”

“I don’t think it is academic fiction to think of a single degree being issued by a consortium,” says Dorothy Kelly, coordinator of Arqus, a European university made up of comprehensive research institutions in medium-sized cities; namely, the universities of Bergen, Granada, Graz, Leipzig, Lyon, Padua and Vilnius. And Waterschoot confirms that the commission is undertaking “exploratory work” along these lines. “We might, for instance, think about a European university statute, so that we could help overcome current obstacles and enable the alliances to operate under a single rulebook for [the] sake of legal certainty, transparency and a level playing field,” she explains.

However, even if it were possible to legally set up a pan-European university, there remains a big question about who would accredit it because, as the EUA’s Jørgensen points out, as things stand “accreditation is national”.

There are also questions about the cost of such a transformation in institutional architecture. The promised €85 million might sound like a lot of money, but split between 114 institutions over three years, it ends up being spread rather thinly. And although they welcome it, the universities that THE spoke to insist that the money on offer is not the reason they applied. “We don’t see that money from the commission as being nearly enough,” says the ECIU’s Lotze.

More important than the funding is the prestige of being labelled a “European university”, according to several of the alliances. There is “no doubt” that the designation gives successful universities a reputation boost, says Sea-EU’s Howard: “it’s a very prestigious thing”. At Cádiz, where she is based, “we will have the Sea-EU flying alongside our university flag, as the image is important”.

Patchwork lecture theatre chairs

Not everyone is happy that the initiative confers extra prestige on a select few. “There is a risk that you create an elite group,” says the EUA’s Jørgensen: a group that, far from being hapless guinea pigs, get to implement trailblazing policies before everyone else does.

Moreover, the amount of work required – at short notice – to submit an application in the first round of applications was such that smaller, less traditional institutions are “underrepresented” among the selected institutions, according to the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE). Just one of its 650 members, made up of universities of applied sciences and professional higher education institutions, was selected. “Most of our members considered that the call wasn’t for them, but for the ‘big boys’”, says Stéphane Lauwick, president of EURASHE. Members are often “just too small” to be able to work up an application, he complains.

Still, EURASHE is confident of more success in the second round; the commission points out that smaller institutions have had more time to prepare. And Lauwick sees being part of a branded “European university” as a way for more niche institutions to boost their “visibility” in a crowded field of more famous names.

Yet anyone can form a network and call themselves a “European university”, even if not selected by the commission. This is precisely what EUniWell has done: it did not actually enter the first call for funding, but went ahead and announced the creation of a “European university” in January regardless. The consortium is awaiting a decision in the second round, but even if it is unsuccessful, it will carry on anyway. “We’re not doing this for that amount of resource. We’re doing this because we want to do it,” says Birmingham’s Mason.

The ECIU does have commission funding, but is one of several official European universities that grew out of already tight-knit networks: in its case, a consortium of “innovative” universities dating back to 1997. In that sense, the commission’s funding merely prompted the member universities to act on plans that they were already formulating.

Indeed, according to Vassiliki Papatsiba, senior lecturer and director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Sheffield, European universities can be seen as merely the latest milestone in the ongoing process towards the integration of the continent’s higher education, following the creation of the Erasmus programme in 1987 and a flurry of joint degrees created in the 2000s, in the wake of 1999’s Bologna Declaration.

“It’s a step further,” she says.

Nevertheless, the EU only has, in Brussels jargon, a “supporting competency” when it comes to education. This means it can “only intervene to support, coordinate or complement” what its member states do. Hence, it has focused on filling in the gaps between national systems, greasing the wheels of areas like student exchange and cross-border collaboration.

But plenty of friction remains between national systems, Papatsiba says, and it is clear that it is premature to talk about a European higher education system: “We are not there yet,” she says.

Montage of people walking over saris on beach

Even if European higher education systems remain fractured by borders, will the new universities forge, as initially hoped, a greater sense of European identity? At his Sorbonne speech Macron claimed that “the strongest cement that binds the European Union together will always be culture and knowledge”, and he envisaged a continent “where every European recognises their destiny in the figures adorning a Greek temple or in Mona Lisa’s smile”.

Yet bolstering European identity among university students may be a case of “preaching to the converted”, as a 2014 article about cross-border study put it. That thought is echoed by Florian Stoeckel, a politics lecturer at the University of Exeter. “People with higher levels of education are the ones who support European integration more,” he says. “They might not be the group we should be concerned [about]”.

Stoeckel’s research, which looks at European identity before and after Erasmus exchanges, still finds an uptick in their perceptions of a European identity, belying the notion that such students might have already hit a “ceiling” of enthusiasm for Europe. And, of course, European universities are planning more than just student exchanges. However, Stoeckel found that this identity-moulding impact is greater when students live in a stereotypical “Erasmus bubble”, surrounded by other Europeans on years abroad, rather than after a deeper immersion in the local culture.

“I was surprised to find that, but it makes sense,” he says. This bubble is arguably “a more European experience”, as students “live together, cook together, party together. Nationality is just one feature of many [among them].”

Research has shown that study abroad has the biggest impact on the attitudes of students who initially have a weak European identity. For this reason, Stoeckel supports extending the Erasmus+ programme to vocational trainees, who may be less natural Europhiles.

He also points out that there is no straight line between a European identity and support for the EU as an institution – “at least not immediately”. Stoeckel has certainly noticed that his British students make a clear distinction between the two.

In that sense, “I don’t see the European universities initiative as helping the EU as an institution,” he says. “I don’t think European universities will shift attitudes.”

Montage of person peeping from European Union star and torn denim

Where are the UK universities?

When the European Commission announced the first round of European universities last June, some prominent institutions were notable by their absence.

Of the 114 institutions that made the cut, just three were from the UK: the universities of Essex, Edinburgh and Warwick.

“That’s very little compared to the centrality of UK universities in any European initiative now, and their quality and excellence,” said Vanessa Scherrer, chief coordinator of Civica, a social sciences-focused European university.

Uncertainty over Brexit appears to have put off some continental European universities from including UK partners in their bids, confirming the fears of German rectors who warned of precisely this outcome before the winners were announced.

Despite being a member of the longstanding ECIU network, for instance, the University of Nottingham was left out of the European university that has emerged from it, explains Sander Lotze, the network’s project leader, because it was just too unclear what would happen to Nottingham’s slice of the money after Brexit: “It’s unfortunate, but pragmatic.”

Meanwhile, the London School of Economics and Political Science has been included in the Civica network, but only so far as an “associate partner” of the seven full members. It has applied to the commission for full partner status, says Simon Hix, the LSE’s pro-director for research.

Brexit-inclined academics might question why UK universities would prioritise their European connections over ties with universities in the rest of the world. But membership of EUniWell – which has applied for official European university status in the second round of applications – won’t restrict the University of Birmingham’s collaborations beyond the continent, stresses Robin Mason, Birmingham’s pro vice-chancellor (international). “It’s not a zero-sum game,” he says.

But when it comes to establishing productive partnerships, “proximity really does matter”, he says, both in terms of geography and culture. A quarter of Birmingham’s academics come from continental Europe, for instance: a far greater proportion than from anywhere else in the world.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Will Macron’s European patchworks make a quilt?

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Reader's comments (1)

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There was never and will never be an 'European identity'. None such thing ever existed - borders have always existed and have shifted with the changing political landscape in Europe - this is a past and current fact. Europe is a continent, much like any other continent such as Asia, that consists of a diverse set of countries with different historical, cultural, economical, political, and social profiles. It is not an equivalent to USA and will never be one because Europe is diverse. Talking about an European identity is as ludicrous as talking about an Asian identity - both don't exist. That does not mean that universities from different countries cannot collaborate. Of course they can but universities also work within their own national, not European, geopolitical and economic frameworks as well. It is ridiculous to think Germany (or any other country) should finance their HE to suit the initiatives for Europe over Germany's interests - their government was voted by Germans and not by Europeans - who do you think the government answers to?

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