Entering the European University Institute has echoes of stepping back in time to one of the early monastic seats of higher education.
Its hub, housed in a Medici-era church and monastery, sits high in the hills above Florence in San Domenico di Fiesole. Today the ancient cloisters are paced by serious-minded young scholars deep in thought or the occasional visiting Dominican priest.
With few distractions in this secluded academic outpost, the life of the scholar appears to have changed little since Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in a nearby villa in the 14th century.
However, despite its similarities to the early centres of learning that would evolve into Europe’s oldest universities, the EUI could justifiably claim to be one of the continent’s most dynamic, modern centres of higher education.
Established in 1976 by the European Union, the non-denominational institution is one of just a handful of genuinely “international” universities not linked to the academic traditions or governmental demands of a single country.
That is partly down to the institute’s “denationalised” funding model, in which about 20 EU member states finance a number of social science PhD students each year, with the EU picking up the bill for administration costs and the rent of premises.
“The idea was that the university was to be funded by a group of countries and to belong to all of them, but also to none of them,” explains Marise Cremona, the university’s interim president and professor of European law.
“It is dependent on countries [for funding], but it is also independent of them.”
Although English is the lingua franca of its classrooms, the EUI’s “stateless” nature makes it particularly welcoming to new staff and students, Cremona argues.
“Even a highly international institution like the London School of Economics is still a UK institution and foreign students are hosted by the UK. Here, there are no hosts and no guests,” she says.
As no single model of higher education holds sway at the EUI, it is also a fertile ground for anyone wanting to explore cross-border issues increasingly relevant to a Europe moving towards closer fiscal and economic union, the institution’s academic director Andreas Frijdal explains.
“The study of social sciences is very national,” he explains. “There is no such thing as ‘British maths’ or ‘British science’, but if you study law in the UK, it will be English law or even Scottish law.
“But when you do law in France or Germany, you realise it is very different. For instance, labour law in Britain is very confrontational between business and trade unions, whereas in Germany companies have union representatives on their boards of directors.
“Having PhD students working on similar topics, but from different international perspectives, is very useful.”
Exposure to international staff and students also equips graduates for successful careers in academia, finance and international law across Europe, Frijdal adds.
A survey of 2,500 alumni found that almost 70 per cent were working in academia. In comparison, Frijdal points out, just 38 per cent of UK-based PhD graduates in social sciences went on to a career in higher education, according to data from the postgraduate support group Vitae.
A further 10 per cent of the institute’s PhD graduates were working in international organisations such as the European Central Bank and the World Bank, 10 per cent for governments and another 10 per cent in the private sector, often as bankers or lawyers, Frijdal adds.
That success is also down to the EUI’s selectivity in picking PhD students. Last year it accepted only 135 of 1,700 applicants.
Its postdoctoral scheme, the Max Weber Programme, which offers one- or two-year research positions, is even tougher to crack: just 45 people were selected from 1,200 applicants in 2011-12. As in previous years, many are likely to use the prestigious post as a stepping stone to a full-time academic position elsewhere.
But despite the success of EUI graduates in the job market and the institution’s strong record in attracting large-scale European Research Council grants, the idea of a pan-European university has never really taken off.
Repeated calls from Jo Ritzen, the Dutch former education minister, to merge a cluster of universities located near the borders of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have fallen on deaf ears over the past decade, while mooted versions of the EUI devoted to science have also failed to materialise.
Indeed, the UK withdrew its postgraduate funding two years ago for institutions similar to the EUI - including the College of Europe’s branches in Bruges in Belgium and Natolin in Poland - although it did maintain its support for the EUI.
However, the success of pan-European research projects such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, Cern, and the energy research consortium ITER may boost support for cross-border education projects.
Travel broadens the scholarly mind
The university believes that its role in promoting student and staff mobility across Europe is as important to the international academy as the research it produces itself.
By providing a different academic experience to scholars often entrenched in their own national systems or just one university, academics can learn from each other and take good practice home with them, Frijdal says.
“Undergraduates should never do their PhD studies where they studied as an undergraduate, and academics should never hire their own PhD researchers,” he says.
“This idea is understood in the US, but it is resisted by lots of European academics, who often stay in one place. You can, of course, come back to your university, but it’s vital to spend a period of time away from it.”
Visiting academics can pick up new approaches to doctoral training - such as providing teaching experience for PhD students at other universities, the use of additional external supervisors, and taking up opportunities to meet publishers and employers - to improve methods at their next university.
“Structured doctoral training is embedded in the UK, but not so much in other in other parts of Europe,” Frijdal says.
Although he notes that institutions in “some countries like Germany are very stuck with an old Humboldtian approach to training”, practices used at the EUI have already spread to many other European universities.
Healthy circulatory system
In this vein, the institution practises what it preaches on the issue of academic mobility. Staff are employed for a maximum of eight years before they must move on to another university - and there is no tenure for academics.
The constant movement of staff in and out of departments helps to refresh the ranks of the institution’s scholars, with new arrivals bringing new ideas and theories, argues Cremona, who moved to the university from Queen Mary, University of London, in 2006.
“There is a price to pay in terms of continuity for students, but I think it helps to keep the whole institution alive,” she says.
“If people know they are only here for five or six years, they have to make a start on their research otherwise they will run out of time.”
The semi-permanent status of students, postdocs and faculty also helps to build a sense of community quickly, adds Alanna O’Malley, a research assistant on the Max Weber Programme.
She says: “Everyone here is living away from their home country. That creates a bond between staff and students.”