Education beyond borders – university alliances and their significance

Concept and roots of University Alliances

Cooperation between higher education institutions can be mutually beneficial, as it can strengthen academic connections, improve research outputs, provide unique opportunities and experiences to students and broaden the horizons of studies. This is the guiding principle behind University Alliances – cooperations between higher education institutions tied together by research topics, geographical areas, and other common denominators.

The European Union provides a supporting framework in which such Alliances can thrive. The European Universities Initiative was founded in 2019, after the 2017 Gothenburg Summit outlined a path towards an inclusive, international, and interdisciplinary future education.

The policy framework

The European Universities initiative relies on the Erasmus+ programme – however it is developed hand in hand with participating higher education institutions, member states, and student organisations. To participate in the initiative, university associations must respond to a call that outlines the key aims. Those associations who qualify will gain access to the Erasmus+ budget, that, in the 2022 call was 272 million EUR. In the most recent, 2022 call, this budget was distributed amongst 44 alliances, that consist of 340 higher education institutions. This meant the formation of 4 new alliances since 2020, since the last call was concluded.

The initiative is an important cornerstone of the European Strategy for Universities as well as an important support for the European Education Area (EEA).

Challenging the academic status quo

There “diverse cooperation opportunities” that such networks provide are undoubtedly beneficial for both students and institutions, yet, there are still barriers in front of true, full scale cooperation. On one hand, the lack of far-reaching standardisation leads to difficulties in matching certifications between member countries. Despite the Bologna Process outlining comparability standards in higher education across Europe, numerous national level institutions and member states still find it difficult to make the different evaluation schemes compatible with each other, which makes the integration of courses taken in partner universities significantly more challenging. In addition to practical difficulties, the established national prestige universities may represent, and the overarching status quo established by the history of European education may also slow down the progress of pan-European educational cooperation. Institutions with significant history may intend to stick to traditional university education, as opposed to competence-based and experience-focused educational journeys, which are more suitable to the contemporary employment markets and other challenges European youth may face.

Outlooks on the horizon

Acknowledging this, there are cautious steps towards the introduction of a degree programme that may attempt to unify institutions under a European label. Although in very early stages, a first pilot of a European degree label was announced recently, on 15 June, and is open until 06 October.

This pilot programme invites participating universities to explore the policy landscape, and in the process, test deep instruments of cross-border educational cooperation. The project is, at the moment, a clean slate, on which the potential future of such a label can be drafted – if the pilot project succeeds to overcome the aforementioned challenges.

Marton Kottmayer
EuChemS Science Communication & Policy Officer