“European Universities” can be Europe’s next success story – if they get the right EU support

, by Guillermo Íñiguez

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“European Universities” can be Europe's next success story – if they get the right EU support
University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Photo: Med Cruise Guide / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

At the 2017 Gothenburg Summit, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus program (now Erasmus+), EU leaders laid out a vision for a European Education Area. Through measures like financial support for member states’ reforms, the European student card or the expansion and strengthening of Erasmus+, the EU will develop a common policy in the area of education which will harness “the full potential of education and culture”.

The goals of this project are twofold. On the one hand, it seeks to increase the competitiveness of European higher education, increasing employment opportunities and boosting the economy. On the other hand, by driving social cohesion, it aims to deepen European integration and identity.

Within the European Education Area, the crown jewel is undoubtedly the newly set-up project of ‘European Universities’. By 2025, twenty “bottom-up networks” of universities from across the Union will be created, which will allow students to design their own curricula and obtain their degrees by combining their studies in several EU countries.

For example, someone who joins the European Civic University (CIVIS) will be able to begin her studies in Madrid and spend time in Stockholm, Bucharest, Brussels or Athens. Some of these alliances will focus on particular areas and challenges (such as climate change), while others will be subject-specific.

A student wishing to specialise in the latter will, for example, have the opportunity to join the EU4ART art school, studying in Riga, Rome or Dresden. The same mobility opportunities will be available to researchers, academics and administrative staff alike, in order to improve the effectiveness of the alliances.

Drivers of European values

European Universities can play a key role in working towards a closer Union, and must thus be welcomed and encouraged. In an age of Euroscepticism, there is no better way of promoting the European project than one which allows young people to study abroad, learn new languages and access new cultures.

This project is a unique opportunity to see past the single market and the infamous ‘Brussels elite’, and to put forward a positive case for the EU: one which views it as a social and cultural union. It was Marcel Decombis, Jean Monnet’s chief of staff, who once spoke of the European project as follows: “without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, [citizens] will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.”

Turning an idea into a success story

It is, however, crucial that European Universities are given adequate means to play said role. On the one hand, the institutions will require proper funding. At this stage, in which the programme is entering its pilot phase, each alliance has been allocated €5 million – a figure which is undoubtedly low, but which the Commission has promised to increase in the 2021–2027 EU budget.

This funding also has to be available to students. Erasmus grants, which can be as low as 200–300€ a month, are often nowhere near the real cost of living and studying abroad. This perpetuates economic inequalities, as benefitting from such programs is made dependent on household income.

More importantly, however, if European Universities are to lead to a closer Union, it will have to be ensured that they address social cohesion throughout the Union as a whole.

There is an inevitable risk that such a project perpetuates a two-speed model: one made up of countries which actively endorse and support it, while others, viewing it as a threat to their national sovereignty, put a spoke in their own wheel by making its implementation difficult. Such a scenario would not only cement geographical and economic inequality: by drawing from a narrower pool, European higher education would miss out on hundreds of thousands of talented students.

If the European Education Area is to go beyond mere goodwill, the Commission must thus play a crucial monitoring role, ensuring that the project is adequately funded and that opportunities to participate are equal throughout the Union.

If this is carried out properly, and if universities are encouraged to adequately develop this programme, European Universities can be as groundbreaking as Erasmus, undoubtedly one of the EU’s biggest success stories. If the investment, both economic and in terms of resources, is only half-hearted, the European Education Area as a whole will be, to paraphrase John Keats, yet another project writ in water.

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