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We enter into a New Year, a world more enriched and more impoverished than just 12 months ago. We have endured great loss of life, a heavy burden of illness and deep economic shock. Yet, lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic have imbued our societies with renewed hope, with evidence that humanity has extraordinary resilience and that we enjoy formidable capacity to overcome great challenges. In the past year, science has delivered on its promises, Europe’s universities among the foremost, while our academies have transformed, embracing flexibility, collaboration and experimented like never before. This article by the EUA President highlights how the future now offers more possibilities than ever seemed feasible.

But, while the risks are great, today’s society is greatly advantaged over predecessors by our cumulative learning from all that history, by the unprecedented capabilities of our new technologies and by our extraordinary capacity to mobilise responses when the political will exists.”

When I wrote that sentence in an article published here in January 2020, a comment on the advantages our generation holds over the one living 100 years ago, which had just experienced global war and a deadly pandemic, I did not anticipate that its truth would be tested so stringently in 2020. Yet, we can take great pride and comfort from the fact that, in the face of a novel virus as deadly as that a century ago, we enter the New Year with not one but many effective vaccines and a death toll that is but a fraction of that a century ago. Yes, many have died, our social fabric has been sorely tested, our economies severely dented, but science has triumphed. The value of research, education and the application of knowledge has rarely been more evident to society.

While there is a challenging battle ahead as we seek to vaccinate global populations and repair the ravages of Covid-19, we can also take comfort from the new evidence that collective global action, investment in scientific, technological and humanities research coupled with evidence-based public policy, enables society to combat most crises. The pandemic has taught us which actions and decisions must be taken to face future challenges – working to stop climate change and meeting the rest of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and it has reinforced our capacity to do so. 

With public recognition of the importance of universities to society greatly enhanced, we can enter 2021 with renewed confidence. Beyond the success of our science, the transformation of university operations and the rapid conversion of teaching to a virtual reality showcased our capacity to adapt; we confounded our most ardent critics. We embraced flexibility, loosened bureaucracy, experimented like never before and collaborated extensively. The future now offers more possibilities than ever seemed possible.

In our external environment we also see renewal. We look forward to the new generation of Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ programmes now that budgets have been agreed. There is a new vitality in the Bologna Process; the Rome Communiqué from the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) Ministerial Conference in November articulates a vision for a more inclusive, innovative and interconnected EHEA. The European Commission has published Communications on creating the European Education Area by 2025 and a renewed European Research Area. Commission plans to publish guidelines for the evolution of Europe’s universities in early 2021 signal the welcome return of universities to the forefront of European public policy. In this context, it is important that the voice of Europe’s universities guides policy makers.

Of course, challenges also loom. The post-pandemic economic downturn will depress public funding for universities, international student mobility will take time to adapt and recover, and digital infrastructure deficits and inadequate staff training in digital education technology will remain a burden for some time. Repairing the impact from Brexit on research collaborations and education partnerships will demand innovative solutions and a coordinated collective approach among Europe’s universities. EUA has a key role to play in supporting universities to meet these challenges through enabling cooperation, sharing good practices and advocating effectively for necessary public policy and resources.

Against this backdrop, EUA marks its 20th anniversary in 2021. With more than 800 universities and 33 national rectors’ conferences, it has become one of the largest higher education representative bodies in the world. Early this year, EUA will publish a seminal document: “Universities 2030: Universities without Walls”. The result of extensive consultations and deliberations over the past six months, it will set out a vision of resilient and effective universities, serving Europe’s societies towards a better future. EUA’s vision will support the development of the European Education Area and the European Research Area and provide useful guidance as universities refresh their institutional strategies in the context of European higher education in a rapidly changing world. The 2021 EUA Annual Conference, scheduled on 22-23 April, will offer an opportunity to meet online to discuss this important theme in a year of renewed momentum for universities.


Michael Murphy
European University Association

Michael Murphy is the European University Association President. He has served as President of University College Cork, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Chair of the Health Research Board of Ireland, and Chair of the Irish Universities Association. President Murphy has also served on the EUA Board and is Chair of the EUA Learning & Teaching Steering Committee.

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