Universities can stimulate a European innovation agenda – EURACTIV.com

EU support for the transnational European Universities alliances will help drive a network of education, research and innovation across the continent, write Mariya Gabriel and Emil Boc.

Mariya Gabriel is the EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. Emil Boc is Mayor of Cluj-Napoca (Romania) and Committee of the Regions’ Rapporteur on the Opinion on the European Strategy for Universities.

There are around 5,000 higher education institutions in Europe. Every single one of them is a centre of knowledge and innovation, whether you are looking at research universities or higher vocational education and training institutions, universities of applied sciences, institutes of technology or schools of arts. 

They are the reason that our continent is globally considered a knowledge and innovation powerhouse that attracts and retains talent. Our higher education institutions are gold mines for skills development and drivers for sustained growth, for entrepreneurship and quality jobs throughout Europe.

This in itself is already wonderful. But there is still so much potential for more. 

The European Strategy for Universities presented a new vision for the sector. A vision that includes European inter-university campuses where students, staff, and researchers from all parts of Europe can enjoy seamless mobility, and create new knowledge together, across countries and disciplines. A vision of a common long-term structural, sustainable, and systemic cooperation on education, research and innovation throughout Europe.

It may sound like an ambitious vision, but in fact there are already 41 so-called European Universities, ambitious transnational alliances of higher education institutions, that have been testing what kind of structural, strategic and sustainable cooperation is really possible and most beneficial for their students, staff and communities.

To support their work and push the European Universities initiative further, the Commission launched an Erasmus+ call for proposals in November 2021 with a record total budget of €272 million. The call had two aims: one was to provide support for already existing alliances so that they could continue or even enlarge their cooperation. And the second was to establish new alliances.  

The overwhelming response to this call is in line with the continued enthusiasm and commitment from the higher education sector. 

Today, we are in the position to announce that 16 existing European Universities alliances will continue to be supported by the Erasmus+ programme. They have expanded their cooperation by involving about 30 new higher education institutions from all parts of Europe, mainly in non-Capital cities, anchoring them even more in various and diverse regions.

And four new European Universities alliances will start their common journey.

This means that there will now be, together with the 24 alliances already selected in 2020, a total of 44 European Universities spanning across Europe. 

Together they will involve 340 higher education institutions from all EU Member States and several Erasmus+ associated countries – Iceland, Norway, Serbia and Turkey.

They can also associate higher education institutions from the Bologna process countries to their alliances now, beyond the Erasmus+ countries, such as Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, which is new – though these collaborations would have to be financed outside Erasmus+ funding for the European Universities.

The European Universities alliances are to be anchors of knowledge within regions and cities. This is proven by the numerous cities and regions directly involved as associated partners in the alliances, developing together with the higher education institutions smart solutions to their local challenges. The alliances promote regional development acting as hubs for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Over time, they alliances will connect more and more faculties, departments, staff, and students, offering more innovative pedagogies based on challenge-based and transdisciplinary approaches, implementing more joint programmes, being even more inclusive and engaging more with their communities. 

Already in the fall of this year, the next Erasmus+ call for proposals will be launched. It will again offer funding for existing alliances and to create new ones. The objective is to expand to 60 European Universities, involving more than 500 higher education institutions by mid-2024.

In parallel, the Commission is working on establishing institutionalised cooperation instruments, such as a possible legal status for alliances of higher education institutions, as well as on options for joint degrees at all levels to recognise the transnational study experiences. And the roll-out of the European Student Card will give students a unique identifier and simplify the administrative process around their mobility.

We will keep pushing the boundaries to the benefit of Europe’s 17.5 million students, 1.35 million educators and 1.17 million researchers – and at the end of the day, to the benefit of us all. Supporting them is an investment in our present and future. We all work together at EU level, Member States, regions, and higher education institutions across Europe, to increase the scope and quality of European higher education.