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European Universities: Council Conclusions and Perspectives from a Norwegian Partner

En gruppe mennesker foran et hvitt hus

The European Council on 17 May adopted conclusions on the European Universities initiative - Bridging higher education, research, innovation, and society: paving the way for a new dimension in European higher education. With it, the Council designates the European Universities an important role to reach the EU's research, innovation, and education objectives. What does it mean in practice?

Let's turn back the clock a few years. The European Universities initiative responds to the Council's conclusions from December 2017, when it was agreed that member states, the Council and the Commission should strengthen "strategic partnerships across the EU higher education institutions and [encourage] the emergence by 2024 of some twenty 'European Universities". Hence, European Universities are bottom-up networks of universities across the EU, that will enable students to obtain degrees by combining studies from across EU countries, effectively boosting the international competitiveness of these universities.

- The European Universities Initiative may act as a game changer for higher education in Europe, and we are therefore pleased to have five Norwegian higher education institutions already participating in the initiative, says Councellor for Education at the Mission of Norway to the EU, Hege Landmark-Høyvik. The European Universities initiative finances 41 alliances in total.

Now, what does a European University look like? We talked to one Norwegian partner university:

- The Council Conclusion underlines the members states’ support for the initiative. Norway supports the European Universities Initiative, and the Ministry of Education and Research is in dialogue with the Norwegian partners to identify national obstacles for deeper cooperation in the European Universities, Landmark-Høyvik told NorCore.

- Arqus works across six Action Lines: Widening Access, Inclusion and Diversity; Student-centered Frameworks for Quality Learning; Multilingual & Multicultural University; Entrepreneurial University and Regional Engagement; Research Support and Early Stage Researcher Development; and Engaged European Citizens, Katrine Moland Hansen explains.

The alliance was in 2019 among the 17 first initiatives funded in the three-year pilot call for European University Alliances within Erasmus+. The alliance has a longer time perspective, however:

- We are looking at Arqus as a long-term undertaking. We have a mid-term evaluation now, but we will learn from our experiences to set the direction for Arqus in the future, Moland Hansen says. We have learnt a lot from our experience in Arqus so far.

Integrating research and education

High on the Commission's agendas for education and R&I is the objective of promoting synergies between research, innovation, and education. Synergies also occupy an integral role in the Council's latest conclusions on the EUI more specifically, as these should be created e.g. between the higher education dimension of the EEA, the ERA and the EHEA. Moland Hansen explains how this is manifest in Arqus' approach:

- We strive to integrate students in research as part of their studies.

Moland Hansen cites the alliance's winter school as one important venue for this involvement: A one-week intensive session for students enrolled in the seven Arqus universities, which is part of the broader undertaking "Engaged European Citizens", one of the six Action Lines in Arqus. The winter school kicks off a challenge-based learning programme that runs throughout the semester, in which students conduct their own research projects in groups at their universities.

- Through this learning programme, we have integrated research and education in a way that clearly benefits students, Moland Hansen says.

Elaborating on this year's winter school, "Rethinking Climate Risk", she also cites how the cross-disciplinary approach brought some interesting perspectives:

- We had more than 20 researchers representing a wide range of disciplines. Seeing how different disciplines relate to these complex challenges was highly interesting, she says. Relatedly, the geographical dimension of European Universities also proved fruitful in this context, as it gave access to perspectives from across seven different localities:

- It enabled us to see how climate related challenges are very context-dependent: Climate changes occurring in Granada will look quite different than the ones in Bergen, for instance.

Arqus' efforts to build down barriers between research and education also manifests on an institutional level:

- We have been conscious not to set up parallel structures for the funding from Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, Moland Hansen explains. Although Arqus has primarily been financed within Erasmus+, the European university has also received support from Horizon 2020.

- I think that’s important: That education and research efforts are organized within the same structure, Moland Hansen concludes.

- Ambitions must be accompanied by funding

Whereas research and education are increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin from Brussels, European Universities are also conceived of as an important tool for realizing ambitious objectives within said fields. Correspondingly, the Council with its conclusions encourages member states and the European Commission to ensure the European Universities initiative underpins the processes to achieving both the European Education Area (EEA) by 2025, and the European Research Area (ERA).

To make these objectives feasible, member states are asked to utilize existing funding opportunities to support the initiative; ranging from the post-crisis Recovery and Resilience Facility through the European Structural and Investment Funds to Horizon Europe, to mention a few. Moland Hansen mentions how appropriate funding is necessary to deliver on the initiative's encompassing ambitions:

- The European Universities are conceived of as being an implementation tool for very many objectives. Therefore, it is important that these ambitions are accompanied by appropriate funding, Moland Hansen says. Relatedly, she also pinpoints allowing for diversity among alliances, and the ability to focus, as an important asset that must be cultivated, shall the European Universities succeed:

- I think the ability to select focal areas must be protected. Hence, we also need to be able to work as bottom-up alliances based on the priorities of our institutions.

Although fruitful, there are challenges to overcome:

- We are extremely ambitious, she said.

Mobility in a post-pandemic Europe

Another important challenge, unsurprisingly, has been to implement Arqus amid a pandemic. Whereas Covid-19 has made digital meetings and events the rule rather than exception over the last year and a half, this clearly constitutes an impediment on the European Universities' objectives. With the current rollout of vaccines, however, there is hope for more physical mobility in a not too distant future:

- We look forward to seeing Arqus develop even more after the pandemic has ended, Moland Hansen says, citing how student and staff exchange is an integral part of the alliance's operation. The European Universities aims to facilitate the seamless mobility between institutions for students, staff, and researchers, for the purposes of training, education, and research.

Relatedly, the Council also calls for efforts to remove barriers to cooperation between higher education institutions, education authorities and stakeholders to be strengthened, e.g. through exploring "(…)the need and feasibility" for joint European Degrees, within the alliances. For the same reason, quality assurance and automatic mutual recognition in higher education should also be improved through further European cooperation.

Experiences and lessons from the European Universities are currently being assessed in a mid-term evaluation by the Commission. Simultaneously, the Commission also consults stakeholders, in preparation of the full-fledged roll-out of the initiative.


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