Universities for Europe

Students in a lecture

The European Commission is promoting the networking of universities Europe-wide with its European Universities Initiative. The DAAD is supporting the programme with a national initiative.

Author: Klaus Lüber

A European University! In 2017, Professor Dr. Eva Maria Feichtner, Vice President International and Diversity at the University of Bremen, was immediately thrilled when she heard about the idea of President Emmanuel Macron of France for the creation of crossborder European university networks. “After the European Commission took this up in the shape of the European Universities Initiative, it was clear to us that the vision of a new university foundation was being pursued. And we found that incredibly exciting.”

In the alliance it will be possible to offer exchange opportunities with a very low threshold

In combination with seven other higher education institutions, including the universities of Essex, Maastricht, Eastern Finland, Antwerp and Cyprus, the University of Bremen submitted an application as the YUFE Alliance (Young Universities for the Future of Europe) – and received funding approval in the middle of 2019. In all, 17 alliances with 114 higher education institutions will receive subsidies until 2021 from an overall budget of 85 million euros within the framework of the Erasmus+ programme and a first EU pilot call for proposals. A total of 54 applications were submitted from 31 countries. In addition to Bremen, another 14 German universities took part. A decision has not yet been made on which projects will receive funding as part of a second call for proposals, the deadline for which ended on 26 February 2020.

New quality of mobility

For Feichtner, above all, the network offers the chance to give the mobility of students and university staff in Europe a totally new quality. “In the alliance it will be possible to offer exchange opportunities with a very low threshold.” Of course, it had already been possible to provide incentives through the Erasmus+ programme and dual-degree courses. “But now we have the option of making all processes much more efficient.”

We want to put a twinkle in students’ eyes

It will therefore become increasingly easy in future to offer individual events in cooperation with international partners rather than complete degree programmes – possibly with a high digital component that will then, however, in turn motivate people to engage in real physical mobility. “I can imagine projects in which students initially work from different locations, but then bring together their findings in a summer school at one of the eight universities,” says Feichtner. “That is how we produce a significant number of students for whom the individual universities in the network mean so much that they put a spring in their step and a twinkle in their eyes: creating real identification with Europe.”

National support

People in Bremen are well aware of the start-up character of the EU funding. “A project duration of three years naturally makes it difficult to realise substantial change – to say nothing of confirming that on the basis of a first cohort of students,” explains Feichtner.

This involves nothing less than establishing a European identity

That is also the view of Anke Stahl, Head of the DAAD Division for Project Policies, Research and Internationalisation, University Networks. “However ambitious the EU initiative is with regard to its political dimension, we can assume that three years is only just enough to get yourself into a starting position. After all, this involves nothing less than establishing a European identity – and doing so at a time when the European idea is under increasing fire.”

For Germany and France, which are among the main actors in the EU initiative, it was clear from the very start that, if possible, they would also have to provide national support for their own universities in order to sustainably anchor the EU funds. The DAAD has taken on this role for Germany and set up a programme called European University Networks (EUN) – National Initiative with funds from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Successful network funding

On one hand, says Stahl, this was intended to provide additional support for the network idea and, on the other, to make the German universities more visible in society through more effective public relations. “It must be made clearer that universities now play an important role in Europe: in defending a free and critical spirit and in preserving or even initially developing fundamental European values.” From the beginning of 2020 until the end of 2023, the DAAD will be supporting the 15 German universities in the EU networks with roughly 28 million euros. Funding has also been granted to five other projects whose applications were rated among the best at the EU level, but were not selected for budgetary reasons.

The universities have found a very good mix of established and new partners

The DAAD already has experience in supporting higher education networks. Strategic Partnerships and Thematic Networks is a funding programme that was set up in 2012. “It was an interesting situation then, almost a kind of paradigm change in universities,” recalls Stahl. “Over the years, universities had concluded many cooperation agreements, of which most, however, were more or less inactive.” It became clear that to make real progress, you had to concentrate on strategically important partners. “We have supported this process until the present day.”

Anke Stahl believes this is also one reason why German universities have been so successful in the EU’s current round of network funding: “The universities have simply found a very good mix of established and new partners with a new objective.”