Blazing new trails

 

The University of Jena is one of 20 German universities selected by the EU Commission in the second round of the competition to co-found a European University.

Together with its partners, the University of Jena is setting up a “European university” – in collaboration with civil society, schools and businesses.

Strolling around Jena is like embarking on a journey into the future and into the past – as well as to places that combine the two. On the one hand, Jena is a hub for the high-tech industry and internationally renowned for its research institutions and companies in the field of optics. These include the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering, and companies such as Zeiss and Jenoptik. On the other hand, the city boasts one of Germany’s oldest universities – Friedrich Schiller University Jena. Together with six partners, the university is now investing in Europe’s future and setting up one of the 41 “European universities”.

“European universities” are transnational alliances of higher education institutions from all over the EU. The European Commission had announced the first 17 higher education alliances back in 2019. Another 24 followed in July 2020 – among them the University of Jena and its higher education partners from Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Spain. Together, they form the European Campus of City-Universities alliance, or EC2U for short. All seven universities are steeped in tradition and, as the name of the alliance highlights, have close ties to their respective cities. Each of them signed the Poitiers Declaration in 2016, in which they stressed the degree to which universities and cities profit from one another – and declared their will to work even more closely together. And this is precisely what will now happen within the EC2U framework.

Friedrich Schiller University Jena is open to the world: it is involved in 270 higher education partnerships worldwide and has concluded 580 Erasmus agreements.

The slogan Science with and for Society is intended to foster the entrepreneurial spirit of students and young researchers. To this end, the university has teamed up with business representatives to organise online courses, company visits and workshops. Subsequently, company mentors will continue to support the students. The Spanish partner in the alliance, among others, is to make suggestions for collaboration with companies. “The university in Salamanca already has an extensive and successful programme in place for cooperating with business”, says Dr. Claudia Hillinger, director of the International Office at the University of Jena. “We can learn quite a lot from that.” It also includes an internship programme for students. Setting up a new business is a subject that will be addressed repeatedly in the joint EU-wide research projects pursued by the EC2U alliance.

Arousing interest in research

The universities will involve local schools, too. Trainee students for example will have the chance to do their semester of teaching practice in one of the European partner cities, and schools are to carry out small-scale research projects supervised by the universities. “In this way we hope to arouse and foster interest in research”, says Hillinger. The EC2U projects will also encourage the public to get involved: the plan is to establish a platform that will allow citizens to assist with scientific projects, for example by counting the number of insects in a particular area for a species conservation project. In this context, the universities also intend to collaborate on a cross-border basis. Furthermore, small events are to be staged, with members of the public suggesting the topics. The results will then be discussed at an event at the European level: the EC2U Forum, which will bring together many of the alliance’s activities.

If we offer our strengths to our partners, we will help Europe to advance – far beyond the boundaries of the university

In addition, the members of the alliance are keen to trial new models for joint degree courses. One of the models would involve the students switching university every semester – this would see them studying at three different universities and then doing an internship and taking their degree in a fourth city. In another model, students would be able to pick courses of their choice at three universities and would then go there – in some cases only for fairly short periods – to complete them. “We want to investigate how much freedom students should be given”, says Hillinger.

“Science with and for Society”: the higher education alliance wants to foster collaboration with civil society and with businesses.

The first master’s degree programme at the “European university” is already up and running: named European Languages and Cultures in Contact, it is aimed at linguistics students. It offers them the opportunity to do courses at different EC2U universities. The master’s degree thus achieves the true objective of education, says Professor Efrem Yildiz: a university is supposed not only to prepare students for their professional futures, but also to expand their European horizons, explains the vice rector for international relations at the University of Salamanca. “It is a question of getting to know other cultures better and sharing different methods of teaching and research”, says Yildiz. “If we offer our strengths to our partners, we will enrich one another and help Europe to advance – not only within but also far beyond the boundaries of the university.”

Making a more united Europe a reality

Students were able to contribute to the EC2U project proposal so as to ensure that the projects reflect their needs. As EC2U Coordinator Professor Ludovic Thilly from the University of Poitiers explains, their input included their Erasmus+ experiences. The “European university” will now allow everyone to advance, believes Thilly. “The activities will help to overcome clichéd views of regional and national identities, thereby making a more united Europe a reality.”

Around 160,000 students and 20,000 university staff in seven countries belong to the EC2U alliance. For more information, visit www.ec2u.eu

Claudia Hillinger is also well aware of the challenges, however: “We will certainly find ourselves encountering limitations in some places.” For example, the extent to which the different approval processes for the new degree courses can be harmonised for the universities and countries involved, and on the European level. The director of the International Office is optimistic, however: “We are blazing new trails through our activities”, says Hillinger. And doing so Europewide.

Author: Hendrik Bensch