European University alliances at the Crossroads
The «European University Initiative« deployed since 2017 marks a new stage – more institutional, transformative, holistic, intensive and long-term – in European university cooperation. It is not a mere extension of the traditional mobility and cooperation programmes supported for decades by ERASMUS (+).
Its profound structural and strategic implications remain little known among academic and administrative staff, and even more so among the student body. What we are faced with are a jump in the level of ambition of European higher education policy and a far-reaching leap, earmarked by new opportunities combined with new expectations, uncertainties and risks.
Institutional alliances designed for far-reaching transformations
The purpose of these alliances is to open the door to fundamental transformations in university teaching, research and governance, which can affect even its founding principles, such as institutional autonomy, academic freedom or accountability.
The EU’s expectation is that partner universities will increasingly define in common key aspects of their mission and strategies, fostering excellence and relevance in teaching and research, inclusion, digitalisation, competitiveness and sustainability.
To do this, they must break with the idea of physical space and mobilize, align, share, update and expand their resources – human (teachers, researchers and managers) and physical – in what could be called a mini-merger or meta-alliance .
Examples of this integration could be the sharing of a common virtual campus, the grouping of advanced level programmes into a hybrid joint «graduate school», the design of a new blended programme where each partner opens its courses to all students in the alliance (and beyond), or the pooling of incubators and entrepreneurship services. Through the alliances, all this affects the entire university community of each partner and society as a whole.
A new model of teamwork
In practice, all inter-university teams (about 20 per partner) should be empowered for their work to be:
- relevant (to partners and stakeholders, to regional, national and European objectives and the SDGs, as well as to the development of the project itself)
- synergetic (serving mainly the regional environment, but also audiences in other countries)
- ambitious (reaching far beyond the status quo and the usual modes of mobility)
- imaginative (at least some tasks should create a spark in their environment)
- substantial (identifying, encouraging and involving – directly or indirectly – numerous academics and administrators for a period of 4+ years, for example in the development of new teaching/learning methods)
- credible (following a feasible roadmap to achieve first results within 4+ years)
- independent (achievable by teams enjoying relative autonomy)
- sustainable (in ecological, but also in financial trerms, i.e. with a high rate of return, already in the initial period of 4+ years)
- scalable (involving not just a few, but gradually the majority of beneficiaries)
- and systemic (having a demonstrable, lasting and transformative impact on the university and the socio-economic environment, in a specific aspect or area).
Main potential benefits of European University Alliances
These alliances aim to promote a more integrated and connected European Higher Education Area (EHEA), with a focus on innovation, competitiveness, inclusion and sustainability. Under this premise, new opportunities may be expected:
Speeding up the digital transformation
Alliances may accelerate the digital transformation processes already underway at the partner level, by providing platforms for the exchange of experience and best practices and by leveraging the tools provided by artificial intelligence.
The alliances have in particular the potential to help partner institutions to become stronger players, both locally and internationally, both within and outside each specific European University alliance.
Accelerating pending reforms
Alliances’ activities and momentum may accelerate reforms in higher education that are pending in several countries, as already pointed out by the European Commission in its communication of 18 January 2022 on a European Strategy for Universities. There is in particular a need to remove from national regulations the obstacles for the attraction and retention of talent and for the access to public universities.
Generating economies of scale
The sharing and joint use of digital technology, libraries, equipment and high-cost laboratories allows universities to make economies of scale and scope, to increase their academic performance and to improve the relevance of learning, thus serving as success stories for the rest of European universities.
Providing additional resources
Most of the additional costs of developing an alliance (i.e. those for cooperation and integration, networking, meetings, digitalisation and some jobs) are borne by the ERASMUS+ grant for European University alliances (up to EUR 14.4 million for a period of 4 years for alliances of at least 9 partners).
Partners must demonstrate that their own funds (proceeding from national resources and from competitive funding) cover 20% of the development costs of the alliance. However, it is obvious that these development costs represent only a small part of the total cost of the activities carried out by any particular alliance, which will continue to be borne by Member States and their universities.
Hence, it is so important to ensure that national and European policies are aligned, in terms of their objectives (a task already substantially completed) and their regulatory frameworks (an area where there is a long way to go).
Not to remain unmentioned, the status of European University can give access to other European funds for certain activities (Horizon 2030, Structural Funds, European Institute of Technology and Innovation), as well as to certain specific national grants in several countries.
Since the publication of the results of the third call in July 2022, there are 44 alliances involving 340 partner universities in total. A recent report published in January 2023 for the European Parliament concludes that the European University Initiative has achieved its objectives with respect to participation, with a good geographical coverage of the countries a significative impact.
Beyond many universities of reference (the large, research-intensive ones that do well in the rankings), the alliances also involve other categories of universities that hitherto did not have the stimulus, institutional capacity and/or resources required to carry out the kind of far-reaching transformations that alliances are expected to foster. This showcase effect is a reality for those smaller or local universities with less research.
We welcome these first results of the European University initiative for the enormous new opportunity it represents.
Main risks at system and institutional level
Two main risks at European (system) level
The first one has to do with the selection process, which tends to reward the continuity of existing alliances and to leave little room for new ones.
In 2022 the duration of the alliances approved in 2019 was extended from 3 to 4 years (and conditionally 2 years more) and only 4 new alliances were approved. In the most recent call, whose results will be known in July 2023, it is expected that the vast majority of the 24 alliances approved in 2020 will be extended to 4 years (and conditionally 2 years more), while only a small number of new alliances (probably 3 to 5) will be selected.
With this, the budget would leave room for the approval of some 12 new alliances in the 2024 call (the last one under the current ERASMUS+ program), thus reaching the total number of 60 European University alliances announced by the Commission. This is three times more than what President Macron contemplated in his speech at the Sorbonne and the Heads of Government and State at their Gothenburg Social Summit in 2017.
Yet, it corresponds to a still low proportion of European universities seeking funds for their modernization and there is little doubt that the race for the status of European University will remain tight.
The other risk at system level is that of undoing some higher education systems, by creating several categories of institutions.
The main difference would be: between institutions that are part of a European University alliance, and those that are not, or do not fit; and between institutions that have access to substancial national subsidies allowing them to finance the necessary transformations, and those that don’t. The risk is that the new orientation of the European agenda for higher education, research and innovation could lead to discrediting quite a few institutions, categories of institutions and possibly whole national higher education systems.
In addition, to avoid unraveling the internal coherence of certain institutions or higher education systems, it is essential that cross-border cooperation goes hand in hand with the interests of the immediate environment – since accountability for universities will remain mainly at the local and/or national level.
Three main risks at the level of institutions and alliances
The main potential risk of joining a European University alliance can be seen in the reorientation of partners’ investments towards this specific type of European cooperation, which requires a strong growth of administrative, financial and academic tasks (without a correlative increase in human resources) – rather than investing in «lighter» cooperations in education, research and innovation that would have a more direct impact on the development of the local territory and community.
This risk can be mitigated by aligning the priorities of an alliance with those of its partner universities; failing this, the exercise may be very difficult, for example when the national regulation in some countries impedes universities from making the necessary changes.
Another risk could be the lack of involvement of broad swaths of the university community in the necessary collective effort. Therefore, it is essential that, in each partner university, the alliance receives support from the highest level of institutional governance (Rector, Deans, Directors of areas, programmes and services), not only from the international relations service as in the previous stages of ERASMUS.
A lack of involvement of all the different groups of professors, researchers, administrative and service staff at all levels could lead to the failure of some universities and, as a consequence, of some alliances.
Finally, there is a risk that some countries fail to introduce the necessary changes in their national laws and funding, thus impeding that their universities from cooperating as effectively as those of other countries – due either to a lack of vision, resources or flexibility.
Universities in these countries could find themselves relegated to secondary roles in comparison with those of countries doing more to foster innovation and differentiation.
The large and growing differences in the financial support that certain countries (not all) allow to their partner universities in European alliances create a very unequal playing field, both within and between alliances (aforementioned Report for the European Parliament, page 52). Another derived risk is the likely discouragement of those smaller and regional universities that will never find their way into a European University alliance.
What is the medium term future of the European University alliances (after 2024)?
The main observation is that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future directions of the Initiative.
The agendas for the coordinated transformation of universities within the framework of the alliances require a medium to long term vision, while European funding is guaranteed for barely 4 years, and there is also considerable uncertainty about the future priorities of European university policy.
In this context, the most important thing will be to see if, and how, the European Strategy for Universities outlined in the European Commission’s Communication of 18 January 2022 will evolve, especially with regard to the Europe for Excellence initiative, and in line with the new agenda for the European Research Area (ERA).
It could raise the initial ambition, requiring European University alliances to contribute more to Europe’s innovation, inclusion, sustainability and competitiveness in the world. The most ambitious alliances could take advantage of this new opportunity, while many others would remain focused on partnerships and transformations of lesser importance.
Three (+1) key challenges and three (+1) scenarios for the future
Sustainability, governance and diversity
In the current context of uncertainty, the main challenges would be: financial sustainability, which depends not only on the availability of sufficient total resources, but also on their equitable distribution among partner universities (something that seems less guaranteed than ever); the governance of the alliances, confronted with the complexity and instability of institutional leadership structures, the basic incompatibility of national regulations and the lack of a European legal figure really suited for the alliances; and Europe’s linguistic diversity, which could be jeopardised by the shift of alliances towards de facto monolingualism.
To this we would add, from our viewpoint, a fourth challenge: the need to avoid the discouragement or exclusion of the majority of higher education institutions in Europe, which do not belong to any alliance.
Orange, pink and blue scenarios
The future scenarios envisaged in the Report differ mainly depending on whether the European or national higher education agenda will prevail.
- Orange scenario. The development of the EHEA would mainly follow the intergovernmental path initiated by the Bologna process: national/regional policies would use the progress of the alliances as inputs to develop their own agendas for higher education.
- Pink scenario. The European Commission’s agenda for higher education (and later, for the entire European Education Area) would prevail: European programmes would set common objectives and provide a large part of the resources, many new alliances would proliferate and there would be official European degrees.
- Blue scenario. higher education would undergo a radical transformation towards a much more personalised, atomised model responding to the demand of the labour market and students; this would favour universities of applied sciences, continuing vocational training centres and the private sector.
Yet, this scenario seems to be out of line with the current configuration of the alliances, whose partners are mainly traditional universities, whose “reputation is not to be particularly innovative, agile and bold».
A fourth scenario would be that of the non-sustainability of alliances beyond the period of their funding: the Report sees it as «as likely as the other three», but does not provide further details. This scenario would obviously present giant problems for alliances’ partner universities, the anticipation of which could dampen the enthusiasm of some alliances or universities, or even encourage them to seek their future elsewhere.
The immediate future
It is expected that other projects and reports prepared by the European Commission will contribute from 2023 onwards to providing a clearer vision of the future of the European Univerity Initiative:
Ten alliances will experiment with proposals to create a specific legal statute for alliances and to award «European» degrees.
Three studies to be published in the coming months, are investigating: the innovative and transformative potential of partnerships; the opportunity to create an ad hoc European legal statute for them; and the possibility of further mobilising national funding to support their development.
In 2023 the first results of the new Centres of Vocational Excellence should be available. These Centres should promote transformative innovations in «applied» higher education, in a way comparable -to some extent- to the European University Alliances; thus, the bias of these alliances towards the large research universities located in capital cities could be partially counterbalanced.
Without going into a one-by-one assessment of the European University alliances, their current state seems to us positive and promising, although there is still a long itinerary that needs to be defined and travelled.
About the authors
Peter Van the Hijden is an independent expert with outstanding direct experience of European University alliances. Guy Haug is one of the architects of the European Higher Education Area and an expert in the development of higher education policies and institutions. Carmen Pérez Esparells is Director of Quality of the blog Universidad Sí and expert in university funding and in international rankings.
 The same as Antonio Javier Gonzalez (Universidadsí, 27 October 2022) we question this name because each so-called ‘European University’ is in fact a group of various institutions, and because the other universities in Europe are also ‘European’.
 In November 2022, Peter Maasen, Bjorn Stensaker and Ariana Rosso, categorize these alliances as «Meta-universities» characterized by a complex mix of cooperation and competition between the partners (The European University alliances – An examination of organizational potentials and perils.