• Posted 15-Nov-2019

Scramble begins to join next wave of European university alliances

Universities are out to cement fresh partnerships, as €120M second round of popular EU competition launches.

The EU has opened the second round of its matchmaking scheme to create European universities, in which institutions will pool their expertise and resources to deliver new, joint curricula to students.

The new competition, which is accepting applications until February next year, has an increased budget of €120 million for 24 new university alliances. Each successful group will receive up to €5 million over three years to start implementing its plan. European Commission officials radiate optimism about the competition, which has set off a matchmaking boom that is not just limited to the big universities.

A launch event in Brussels last week saw wide interest, with faculty members from all kinds of institutes across Europe scrambling to pull together new alliances. Brussels is pitching the alliances to a higher education sector grappling with financial challenges that cry out for structural change.

It might not be typical in an academic setting to talk about mergers, alliances, strategy and synergies. But for institutions facing increasingly tight competition for students and money, that means looking in new places and in different ways. The idea is also to force member states’ higher education systems to become more intertwined.

The commission says the scheme should eventually lead to joint degrees and allow students and researchers to travel between European institutes more easily.

There will be plenty of red tape to overcome, said Jean Chambaz, president of Sorbonne University, which is leading one of the alliances formed in the first round, the 4EU+ European University group.

“We need less constraining regulations. We have to break down education barriers, even if it means member states lose a bit of their power, and it goes to the European Union,” Chambaz said.

Tips for success

The commission says universities should find their niche, whether it is fine art or cybersecurity, and make sure it connects with real-world demand.

Aping the successful first round proposals isn’t going to be enough. “Don’t try copy the first successful 17 alliances,” said Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, head of higher education policies and programmes at the commission’s education directorate. “And the best proposals should feel like they came from a true engagement between students and staff.”

Daniela Trani, director of Young Universities for the Future of Europe, one of the alliances that received funding in the first round of the competition, advises against peppering applications with “jargon only you or your colleagues understand”.

“My other tip will be welcomed by the financial administrators: don’t start too late with the budget. Content and budget need to be developed in parallel,” she said.

With Brexit looming, UK universities in particular are keen to put down fresh roots inside their main European networks. They will be allowed stay in the competition, so long as the government clears the Brexit withdrawal agreement and pays their bills, said Beernaerts. “If there is a hard Brexit, UK applicants will no longer be eligible and that’s the end of the story,” she warned.

There is no apparent appetite to kick out British universities. “It would not be very clever if we excluded the UK, or Switzerland,” said Peter Greisler, head of higher education in Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Controversially, there is nothing preventing successful first round universities re-applying as part of a new configuration.

French universities scored highest in the first round, taking part in 16 successful alliances. Germany has the next best representation, with 14 universities. Other big winners included Italy, with 11 institutes winning, and Spain with nine. Hungary and Poland had five successful universities each. The only EU countries with no winners were Bulgaria, Estonia, Luxembourg and Slovakia.

Among the unsuccessful candidates in the first round, Ludovic Thilly, coordinator of the EC2U alliance of universities from Portugal, Romania, Italy and Finland, was left to rue his group missing out in the evaluation by one per cent.

But the group has dusted itself off and is back to have another crack. “To be selected this time, we will reduce the number of our activities to ensure that they are all implemented within the first three years, which is the main criticism we received from the evaluation experts,” Thilly said.

Money from EU regional funds could support the alliances, suggested Michael Murphy, president of the European University Association. “Students should spend time in all those excellent labs in disadvantaged areas of Europe,” he said.

Source: Science Business (http://bit.ly/2qfvOIh)