‘European universities’ dream falters amid funding uncertainty

Brussels-backed pilot project has borne fruit, but leaders say creating ‘seamless mobility’ across continent has been even more expensive and bureaucratic than expected

March 18, 2021
man and woman on slacklines in the Rhine harbour in Deutz, with the cathedral and Severins bridge in the background, Cologne, Germany, as a metaphor for European universities balancing cost and ambition
Source: Alamy

Brussels’ bold plan to create “European universities” risks failing unless the project is given substantially more funding and a promise of long-term support, senior academics involved in the initiative have warned.

In June 2019, the European Commission announced the first batch of 41 “universities of the future”, alliances of existing institutions tasked with creating “seamless mobility” across their campuses for students and academics, each backed by €7 million (£6 million) for a three-year pilot.

Originally dreamed up by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017 to help rekindle the European project, they are supposed to promote “European values and identity” and each focuses on a different strength, such as fine arts, well-being or the seas.

“They asked us to promise to reach the moon, which we did – but then they gave us a bicycle,” said Ludovic Thilly, coordinator of the European Campus of City-Universities. EC2U, as it’s called, is a grouping of seven institutions in Portugal, Germany, Italy, Romania, France, Spain and Finland, which by 2023 hopes to have “joint governance with shared resources” and a “joint campus life” with shared sports and culture events.

The problem was not lack of enthusiasm, the alliances said. Rather, the sheer complexity of creating new curricula, smoothing mobility and forging other links across very different national systems was proving even more daunting than first thought.

“It takes much more time than expected,” said Professor Thilly. Nearly half of EC2U’s budget has gone into the man-hours needed to devise programmes recognised in multiple countries. New IT equipment and software was also needed to host new joint online courses, he explained.

Overall, he estimated that the pilot funding was around half of what was required, and the universities themselves have had to pump in an extra €3 million of their own money.

Some of the alliances can point to tangible success. At the European Consortium of Innovative Universities, more than 100 students are already working together online in pan-continental groups on challenges set by local businesses and public authorities, explained Sander Lotze, the alliance’s project director.

But even a so far small-scale innovation like this required a new website, learning environment, databases and above all time from lecturers and administrators to make it happen.

“You need an IT system connecting 12 universities,” he said. “It’s a multimillion-euro investment. That...isn’t covered from the money we’re getting.”

From 2022, the Una Europa alliance is aiming to offer undergraduates a new joint bachelor’s degree in European studies, and it has plans for a similar programme in sustainability. In theory, it should only need only one national agency to approve the programme for it to be given the green light continent-wide, but some states still insist on running their own national checks. 

“The big European project stops very quickly when it comes to national accreditation,” said Verena Blechinger-Talcott, chair of the partnership’s board. “We are finding workarounds...but to have a truly joint degree with eight universities will require a longer project than three years.”

One of the most ambitious alliances is the European University for Well-Being (EUniWell), which wants to “become a single integrated institution” where students can move “seamlessly” between countries and graduate with a single EUniWell degree, explained Robin Mason, pro vice-chancellor (international) at the University of Birmingham, one of EUniWell’s seven partners.

The funding thus far was a “useful start” but EUniWell’s grand ambitions were “not even a decade away; it’s a 20-year project”, Professor Mason said. A thicket of obstacles needed to be overcome: synchronising term times, joint student registration, credit transfer, differences in tuition fees and so on.

“The uncertainty is, will we put three good years of work into this, only to find that’s the end of it?” he asked.

“The pressure is mounting,” said Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, a policy coordinator at the European University Association. “It’s one and a half years since the alliances have started.”

Adding to the pressure on the alliances is the idea that Brussels hopes to use them to further some of its other policy goals, such as the European Research Area – the dream of a frictionless academic job market within Europe. In other words, these alliances are being used as “test beds”, she said.

Asked by Times Higher Education whether funding would continue after the pilot, a commission spokeswoman said: “Our objective is to continue supporting the selected European universities that are successful, through the long-term EU budget for the period 2021-2027.”

As for whether budgets will increase, she pointed out that from this year there will be more money for Erasmus+, the funding strand through which European universities have received most of their money. “And we furthermore encourage member states to co-finance the initiative,” she added.

So far, France and Germany have contributed extra money, but there is frustration that more countries have not followed. “We need a real commitment,” said Professor Thilly.



Print headline: ‘European universities’ dream runs short of cash

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