How to succeed in the European Universities Initiative

The European Union has published European Universities Factsheets giving comparative information on the 41 European Universities Initiative (EUI) alliances currently in operation and making themselves ready for the mid-term review of the EUI later in 2021.

At the call of the two first rounds of the EUI it was explicitly stated by the EU Commission that the selected alliances are to serve as role models for “the path towards the EHEA [European Higher Education Area]”, and therefore it is of great interest for potential applicants and others to hear how these alliances have started operating their projects.

These factsheets present a wealth of information on each alliance on ‘who we are’, numbers of students and staff in the participating institutions, and faculties, research projects and excellence projects at these institutions. Furthermore the ‘visons for the future’ are listed, and a paragraph on ‘putting the visions into practice’ through key deliverables and a section on ‘how our alliance will transform universities’ are included.

The EUniQ project

Four European Universities Initiative alliances – Una Europa, EUTOPIA, UNITE! and YUFE – have been quality assured by the EUniQ project (“Developing a European approach for comprehensive QA of European University networks”), coordinated by the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders or NVAOin the Hague, and involving quality assurance organisations in Armenia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Latvia, Serbia, Italy and Sweden.

The EUniQ 2019-21 project has been developed within the framework of the peer support group on quality assurance of the Bologna Implementation and Coordination Group. It takes up and develops a methodology for measuring one of the three key commitments included in the Paris Communiqué: quality assurance in compliance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area.

It is funded by the EU Erasmus+ programme in order to support the implementation of EHEA reform, and directed by Mark Frederiks at NVAO. The final report will be published in September 2021.

The European University Association (EUA) in March published a report, The Governance Models of the European University Alliances: Evolving models of university governance, written by Thomas Estermann, Enora Bennetot Pruvot and Hristiyana Stoyanova.

“Expectations for these alliances tend to be quite high, because – as part of the broader European Education Area (EEA), the European Commission (EC) placed them at the forefront of the university transformation agenda.

“Thus, the question of these partnerships’ governance is highly relevant in terms of structures, inclusiveness and processes,” the EUA report stated. This analysis aimed to provide an initial overview of these structures and to analyse relevant governance challenges.

Estermann, who is director of governance, funding and public policy development at the EUA, told University World News: “The governance structures of 20 university alliances were studied in detail in the EUA analysis. The three that we have described in more detail in the briefing – Una Europa, Aurora and UNIC – were examples to show different types of issues coming out of the analysis of all 20 that were included in the analysis. The challenges and experiences we have put in the briefing come from all 20.”

Estermann said there are important elements to consider by universities who are thinking of engaging in such an alliance.

“The EUI as a cooperation model for universities is very resource-intensive. Universities seeking to engage in this forum need to be aware of this, evaluate why they prefer this model to another form of enhanced collaboration, have a clear long-term vision and focus on achievable goals that align with their individual institutional strategies.

“It is important to plan from the outset for the involvement of institutional governance and broad university communities, and then to link these effectively to the alliance governance.”

These six examples monitored by the EUniQ project and the EUA governance report between them (Una Europa was evaluated by both) can give good practice advice to those now planning new EUI alliance applications if the EUI programme is further called for in 2021 or 2022.

University World News therefore asked some of those participating in central functions in the monitored alliances and some of those participating in the evaluation studies what experience they will share and what advice they would give those considering setting up alliance networks for the next phase of EUI.

The focus is on the governance structure and function of the six alliances studied, with examples of issues that have come up in the evaluation or through the first establishment phase of the alliances:

Involving the whole university: UNIC

UNIC – the ‘European University of Post-Industrial Cities’ – including University of Deusto (Spain), Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany), University College Cork (Ireland), Koç University (Turkey), University of Liège (Belgium) and the University of Oulu (Finland), reported that to ensure alignment with the governance of each individual institution, each partner must establish a UNIC executive office.

The University College Cork (UCC) “populated its executive office to govern and manage the implementation of UNIC, to embed the concept of a European University within the overall institution, and to organise and coordinate the other member institutions’ involvement in the alliance”.

The UCC UNIC executive office includes participants from across the university in areas ranging, for example, from the offices of the president, the registrar, academic affairs, European relations and public affairs, international education, social sciences, ICT, research and innovation, diversity and inclusion, corporate and legal affairs, marketing and communications, civic and community engagement, etc, as well as from the city partners.

Addressing regulatory challenges for a joint doctorate: UNITE!

UNITE! (University Network for Innovation, Technology and Engineering), the EUI alliance with Technische Universität Darmstadt (Germany), Aalto University (Finland), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), Grenoble Institute of Technology (France), Politecnico di Torino (Italy), Polytechnic University of Catalonia (Spain) and the Universidade de Lisboa (Portugal), “will educate a new generation of European students in science, technology and engineering, transcending the traditional engineering education, with an entrepreneurial mind-set”.

UNITE! says it will take advantage of the broad spectrum of disciplines, beyond their common core in science and engineering, to integrate multidisciplinarity with arts, design, business, humanities and social sciences.

Among the most ambitious and path-breaking parts of the action is to work towards a joint doctoral degree. Partner universities identified a number of regulation challenges such as reference structure and PhD context, duration, PhD path and course requirements, financial support and fees, admission procedures and requirements for the candidates, as well as requirements for performance and monitoring, admission to the final evaluation, final evaluation and defence, and the PhD thesis and documents.

The regulatory status of these requirements is in many cases based on national and regional legislation. The external stakeholders from the ministries and national or regional QA agencies that a panel from UNITE! engaged with, were “all willing to help in addressing those challenges”.

Alliance governing structure: YUFE alliance

The Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) alliance, which includes Maastricht University (The Netherlands), University of Antwerp (Belgium), University of Bremen (Germany), University of Cyprus; University of Essex (United Kingdom), University of Eastern Finland and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain), aims “to bring radical change by becoming the leading model of a young, student-centred, non-elitist, open and inclusive European University based on cooperation between higher education institutions, public and private sector, and citizens”.

YUFE has established an actively working alliance management structure. The highest decision-making body is the YUFE Strategy Board which consists of executives of YUFE institutions (both full as well as associated partners), president and vice president of the student forum, and the YUFE managing director as the main advisor to the YUFE Strategy Board at strategic and policy level.

The chair of the Strategy Board is elected by all members and the vice chair is the student forum president.

Common activities are overseen and managed by the managing director, who is also chair of the YUFE Project Management Board, responsible for monitoring implementation of YUFE WPs.

Advice for new EUI alliances

Una Europa comprises Freie Universität Berlin (Germany), Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna (Italy), University of Edinburgh (UK),Uniwersytet Jagielloski w Krakowie (Poland), KU Leuven (Belgium), Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain), Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (France) and University of Helsinki (Finland).

Emily Palmer, secretary general of Una Europa, told University World News with regard to working out a proposal for an EUI alliance: “Think long-term: It is important to set up your alliance as a long-term endeavour and put in place the governance structure accordingly. Aligning with member universities’ strategies is key for the commitment of top management.

“Engage your community: The success of an alliance will depend on a thriving community of academics, professionals and students. Therefore, a careful balance between top-down steering and stimulating bottom-up engagement is crucial.

“Stay flexible: Build in maximum flexibility at all levels to adapt to new challenges quickly.”

Professor Peter Scholten of migration and diversity policy at Erasmus University of Rotterdam and coordinator of the UNIC alliance, told University World News: “The European University of Post-Industrial Cities (UNIC) brings together eight universities from across Europe with a focus on societal impact, inclusion and mobility.

“There is not a single grand model for building a European University. Thus UNIC is exploring more organic, innovative and tailor-made solutions to working together towards the future of the European Education and Research Area.

“The concept of operationalising a truly European University requires creative and compromising approaches to traditional university leadership and management.”

Nikki Muckle, secretary-general of the EUTOPIA alliance, told University World News: “Flexibility is key. EUTOPIA has changed significantly from our initial set-up in 2019. We have become bigger and more complex, and our governance structures have had to adapt accordingly.

“When embedding these governance and management structures, it is really important to ensure engagement and buy-in from all communities and stakeholders including external partners.

“As EUTOPIA is a student-centred alliance, it is vital that our students are represented on all our governance bodies and at all levels. Additionally, the students have their own EUTOPIA Student Council and have taken the initiative to set up the EUTOPIA Student Think Tank.”

Professor Hans de Wit at Boston College who chaired the EUniQ evaluation of the Una Europa alliance, told University World News: “The EUI networks and consortia of the first and second round have taken off with much enthusiasm under the complicated circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and challenged by the need to balance between the original Macron vision for EUI, the rules and regulations of the tender under Erasmus+ and their own vision and views on governance. In addition, they have to take into account the diversity in national rules and regulations.”

He said the networks face a challenge in negotiating between their long-term vision and related plans for collaboration, those national rules and regulations and ticking the boxes of the short-term Erasmus+ funding (and likely also for the additional research funding).

“Each of the EUI networks deals with these challenges in their own way. Several of the networks started from scratch, others, for instance Aurora, already existed before; again others had to expand their existing and successful alliance to adapt to the geographical requirements, U4 [evolved] into ENLIGHT, others are part of existing broader alliances, for instance Una Europa is a member of Coimbra and Guild.

“This will result in a very diverse range of alliances and related governance structures, which in itself is fine, but if these alliances have to focus too much on the short-term funding requirements of the European Commission, the long-term vision of the initiative and of each alliance is in danger of getting lost.

“The Commission should focus on the long-term goals and related governance structures more than on the short-term activities to guarantee the success of the initiatives.”

Dan Andrée who has been working in Brussels for over three decades, notably as representative of Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency, and who has written about EUI as a part of the CALIE project, told University World News the EUI is an “extremely important initiative for European universities but considering the diversity in Europe which is positive, it is important to leave flexibility and openness in the next phase. If the EU imposes too many conditions there is a risk the initiative will only be suitable for a limited number of European universities”.

Impact on higher education quality assurance

Loulou von Ravensberg, project manager of UNITE!, said the European University alliances will, if they turn out successfully, have an important impact on the structure of higher education institutions, both on the universities within alliances but also on those outside alliances.

“The alliances, consisting of universities in different countries, will create important challenges to national legislation. These challenges will not, however, be limited to national legislation, as also internal policies and regulations within the universities themselves will be affected by the necessary reforms that will have to take place.

“National quality assurance systems will be influenced by the changes and so will national quality assurance agencies.

“The ambition of the European Framework for the Comprehensive Quality Assurance of European Universities that has been worked out by EUniQ is to avoid [a situation in which] alliances will be assessed in multiple ways by multiple quality agencies with multiple quality systems in multiple countries.”