Since the Middle Ages, scholars have been moving between great seats of learning across Europe and Asia. In the past 30 years, the trend has been to formalise links through the creation of multi-partner university networks.
In the UK, this has taken place through associations such as MillionPlus, at a regional level through organisations such as the Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN), and at a global level with alliances such as the World Universities Network.
It is in this context that the European Commission is promoting a new generation of creative Europeans collaborating across borders and across disciplines.
British institutions such as the University of Essex are undeterred by Brexit in looking to play their part; in fact, these links are considered more important than ever.
We know that successful collaboration will offer considerable opportunities to our academic staff and students, as well as increasing the global competitiveness and performance of the whole continent.
For university leadership teams, networks exist to serve a variety of purposes based on a mix of conviction and calculation. They create opportunities for universities to:
- Associate with those who are like-minded and complementary
- Offer a multinational educational experience at all degree levels
- Build multinational research teams to tackle the world’s most challenging questions
- Open up funding opportunities in different jurisdictions
- Seek a variety of benefits from brand recognition of the network
- Identify economies of scale in lobbying governments.
In 2018, it is very rare to find a university that is not part of a multi-university international network, but the level of engagement and impact varies widely.
In part, this explains the motivation of the European Commission’s vision for the coming decade, The Future of Europe: Towards a European Education Area, which aims to strengthen strategic partnerships between higher education institutions and to encourage the emergence by 2025 of 20 super-networks of “European Universities”.
The proposal is that these will consist of bottom-up networks of universities across the European Union, which will enable students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and will contribute to the international competitiveness of European universities.
The initiative is gathering momentum. Earlier this year, four institutions in the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Poland created an alliance for teaching and research sparked by the plan. Meanwhile, a pilot possibly involving up to five networks, each comprising four to six universities, is expected to get under way this autumn.
The magnitude of ambition is striking, with each network sharing a common education and research strategy, and a comprehensive level of engagement. In education, the commission would like the focus to be on students obtaining joint degrees based on student-centred learning, innovative pedagogies, learning of languages, physical and virtual mobility, work-based learning and the transfer of the latest research results into education programmes.
Researchers would benefit from sharing infrastructure and the creation of interdisciplinary teams, where students, staff, academics and local ecosystems co-create and co-share knowledge and innovation. At the heart of the idea is a desire to shape a new generation of creative Europeans who work together across borders and across disciplines; and to enhance the global performance and competitive advantage of European universities.
This is a radical proposal, designed to shake up existing hierarchies, legislative barriers, and turbocharge the depth of engagement and the focus of existing collaboration. It is no surprise that more established universities are downplaying the idea.
For younger European universities, where age does not play such a prominent role in their reputation and global league table position, challenging the status quo is in their DNA, and the commission initiative offers an exciting opportunity for disruptive innovation in higher education.
Of course, ideas need to be refined, the number of pilot networks is too small and each network could be larger, but these issues can be addressed in the coming months.
With the resources available to the commission to promote this initiative – notably from Erasmus+, but possibly complemented with the future Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, structural funds and national funding – this is an exciting opportunity to do something different and to put European universities on the map in new and exciting ways, to the benefit of students, society and the economy.
I hope everyone will welcome the scale of ambition.
Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor, University of Essex, and executive board member, Young European Research Universities Network.