Higher education has moved to the top of the European Union’s political agenda. Although the European Commission has weak competencies in this area, the manifestly successful Erasmus student exchange programme is seen to point a way towards addressing the urgent felt need to forge a stronger European identity in the wake of Brexit and strains over migration.
Emmanuel Macron’s Sorbonne speech on Europe’s future added to the momentum in September. One idea he presented was the creation of European university networks: groups of between four and six institutions that would collaborate in research, education and innovation. Funded by perhaps €5 million (£4.4 million) over five years, 20 of these networks could set new standards in the free movement of ideas.
This initiative has found so much traction with the member states that it seems clear that it will happen. The first funding call is set to be this autumn, with full funding to be released at the beginning of the EU’s next Multiannual Financial Framework in 2021.
But because little is yet decided in detail, questions abound. What will be the scheme’s added value compared with existing mechanisms, such as Erasmus+ and the collaborative research elements of Horizon 2020? If national governments co-fund it, how will that work in practice? How many networks and partners should there be? Is there a risk that a new set of relatively closed clubs is created? And perhaps most importantly, is top-down mandated collaboration not inimical to the creation of genuine partnerships, which cannot exist without bottom-up links based on mutuality?
Such important questions must be addressed early if we are to ensure that the Macron initiative is set up in such a way that it can achieve its ambitions of encouraging new ideas and fostering a much higher degree of exchange between researchers, students and innovators across the continent.
Current models of networks illustrate the virtue of permitting maximum flexibility. The European Campus (Eucor) of five neighbouring universities along the Rhine, in Switzerland, Germany and France, is focused around specific subjects, such as quantum physics. Meanwhile, the U4 Network (Ghent, Göttingen, Groningen and Uppsala), besides developing areas of close collaboration in teaching and research, has concentrated on institutional capacity-building, including joint leadership courses and peer evaluation. Ultimately, the “European Universities” must thrive through distinctive visions and a clear sense of how to achieve them.
The commission is extremely keen to raise the visibility and prestige of European universities, and it hopes that the new networks will help to achieve this. But we need to be extremely careful about how we get there. Quality must be articulated carefully, and cannot be easily read from international league tables. While a small number of ambitious goals, such as student mobility, might be standard for all networks, quality indicators should be largely contingent on what each network wants to achieve.
Moreover, to create added value, the initiative cannot be about business as usual. Networks must be bold. Could they, for instance, develop a common digital agenda, sharing learning resources, classes and online public engagement? Could they further opportunities for internships and entrepreneurship? Could they ensure that the transfer of credits and marks is the rule, not the exception? Could they offer genuine network campus experience for doctoral candidates and young researchers? And could they create trusted environments that promote new ways of sharing for professional services staff and university leaders?
Success will not depend merely on the institutions themselves, however. Even more important than member states’ financial commitments will be their dedication to reducing red tape around mobility. Perhaps the biggest single effect of this initiative would be to compel higher education ministries to ensure a greater complementarity of national regulations around quality assurance and the mutual recognition of qualifications. And this would benefit all institutions, not just those participating in the initiative.
Finally, but importantly: while Macron’s initiative was designed to help re-energise the EU-27’s sense of purpose and to strengthen the European identity of its students, we need the EU’s associated countries to be involved, too. Without, for instance, Switzerland, Norway or the UK, the networks would be the poorer. And so would Europe.
Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.