The EU’s university strategy is a good start – but more is needed

More than two years in the making, the European Commission’s European Strategy for Universities is out, along with the commission’s recommendation to strengthen university collaboration across Europe.

Through these documents, the commission underlines the central importance of universities to the European project. They are described as “hallmarks” and “lighthouses” of “our European way of life”. Distinguished by excellence and inclusiveness (relative to universities in other parts of the world), they strengthen a “sense of European belonging”.

The strategy rests on two other foundations. The first is that universities are central for Europe to address fundamental challenges, such as digital and green societal and economic transformations and the changing skills needs of the employment sector. The second is that Europe’s universities will be strengthened through collaboration. According to the strategy and the council recommendation, collaboration will make universities more competitive, enhance excellence in education and improve the quality of research.

The proposed strategy and recommendation are most far-reaching when it comes to the existing European Universities initiative. These networks of universities will be expanded from 41 today to 60 by 2024, covering more than 500 institutions across Europe. To enhance their effectiveness, the commission proposes the creation of a joint European degree, the development of a European legal statute for universities, and the enhancement of common quality assurance mechanisms. Student mobility will be fostered through a unique European student identifier.

Whilst these ideas are not new, they have been put firmly on the table, with tight timelines for member states to support them. If implemented, they could indeed boost the potential for collaboration among the European University networks and beyond.

These proposed measures are flanked, however, by a host of initiatives whose added value for universities is far less apparent. These include (among many others) an annual European Talent Fair, bringing together students, entrepreneurs and scholars; a “transition toolbox for universities and member states”, including surveys and self-assessment tools for universities to assess their innovation capacities; and a platform for “higher education climate frontrunners”, promoting partnerships in combating climate change. Given the scale of the challenges that European universities face, it is questionable whether additional platforms, self-assessment tools or one-off events can have any more than a marginal effect.

Beneath the flurry of proposed initiatives, the core question of what makes Europe’s universities stronger is only partly addressed. It is very welcome to see an explicit consideration of public funding; while this is self-evidently a national competence, it is to be hoped that the commission has started a wider debate about the funding levels needed to redress the fact that Europe’s “relative weight at global scale when it comes to research-intensive universities” is shrinking. But, although increasing funding has to be part of the answer, how else will the excellence of our universities be strengthened?

Whereas the strategy is relatively clear on what it wants to achieve in the next two years with regard to European University alliances, what is missing is a clear articulation of the added value of fostering inter-institutional collaboration, as opposed to nurturing bottom-up excellence.

For instance, the European Research Council (ERC) has manifestly helped Europe’s universities compete at a global scale in attracting (and keeping) outstanding researchers. Yet, inexplicably, the strategy is silent on this single most valued European Union funding instrument among universities: the enabler of the frontier research that makes them so distinctive in the innovation ecosystem.

There is no question that institutional collaboration is critical to facilitating student mobility, or that Europe’s programmes for research, innovation and education are unparalleled in fostering collaboration. But what type of collaboration is the most effective for achieving what? Institutional collaboration needs to be considered alongside enhanced support for bottom-up, frontier-led collaboration in research – particularly in the challenge-led pillar of the Horizon programmes, where such opportunities are currently rare.

We should welcome the proposed European strategy, then, for putting firmly on the table key challenges for Europe’s universities. It values universities for being central to the idea of Europe, affording an expansive perspective of their societal, civic, cultural, and economic significance. It puts the issue of university funding – both European and national – firmly on the table. And there is an opportunity in the proposed excellence initiative, whose details have yet to be spelled out, to strengthen excellence in universities on a global scale.

What we need is an effective, long-term strategy for boosting the research capacity of Europe’s universities. This would entail strengthening the ERC and the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie doctoral and postdoctoral programmes, alongside other ways to attract and retain the best researchers. And we should develop a bold vision of how universities can support a European global agenda through developing new, equal partnerships with institutions in Africa and beyond.

The commission’s latest moves provide an excellent starting point for universities to articulate the added value afforded by the European Union to universities and vice-versa. But to get to the finish line, much more work will be needed.

Published Jan. 21, 2022 9:25 AM - Last modified Mar. 21, 2022 1:32 PM