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On the occasion of EUA’s 20th anniversary, President Michael Murphy and long-time senior expert and Director Michael Gaebel look back at two decades of global university collaboration. Offering a brief history, the piece also reimagines global engagement in a way that is fit for the opportunities and challenges ahead.

The European University Association (EUA) is, by its very nature, an inter- and transnational organisation, representing more than 800 higher education institutions and 33 national rectors’ organisations across 48 European countries. Its membership is comprised largely of comprehensive universities, some specialised universities, open universities and university colleges.

While its primary goals were and are Europe focussed – advocacy on behalf of the sector with power holders in Europe, sharing of expertise and good practices among member universities -, EUA embraced international exchange and collaboration from its foundation. It is the collective voice of Europe’s universities, representing the sector in global fora and engaging openly in partnership with international peers. In this, it has inherited practices already pursued by its members and its antecedents, the Association of European Universities (CRE) and The Confederation of European Union Rectors’ Conferences.

The predecessor organisations had their origins in the post WWII order: They contributed to overcoming the Iron Curtain that divided Europe and the entire world into two antagonistic blocks, and to a European Union with a purpose well beyond the initial coal and steel community. When EUA came into existence in 2001, some major foundations for a European Higher Education and Research Area had already been established or were just emerging: The Magna Charta (1989), the Erasmus programme (1987), and the Bologna Process (1999). In view of growing globalisation, their further development was not only a European matter: Higher education and research had been identified as major economic drivers in a changed and changing geopolitical landscape, marked by the announcement of the (most competitive) European knowledge-based economy and society, and expanding higher education sectors around the globe. For universities this brought enhanced opportunities but, in view of geopolitics and global challenges, this also created pressures for international exchange and collaboration.

Over the following 20 years, global peer engagement has taken many forms – from regular dialogue and the exchange of wisdom and good practices exemplified by the biannual Transatlantic Dialogue with North American sister organisations, the American Council for Education and Universities Canada, to deep collaborative projects with like associations in many global regions, often funded by the European Commission. Collaborations with Latin American, Asian and African peers have had a major impact for the partners, but they have also helped shape European higher education policies, as well as EU and individual countries’ relations with these partner countries and regions. EUA contributed to the development of the African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance. It supported Latin American university associations in developing capacity for international collaboration, and in enhancing inter-institutional dialogue within the region.

Learning has not been a one-way street: EUA’s members have acquired new connections in research, learning and teaching and intercultural experiences that, in turn, have enhanced their own institutional exchange and collaboration initiatives; the EUA Council for Doctoral Education gained much inspiration from North American partner organisations; EUA’s work on rankings started from discussions at a joint event with Asian partners who showcased the perverse pressures they were experiencing from these evaluation systems.

It is important to recall that the value and impact of these initiatives go far beyond the immediate purpose of higher education, providing a major contribution to enhancing global understanding, and to Europe’s soft diplomacy. In relation, the Association also engages directly in Europe’s governmental region-to-region exchanges. In the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), the EU-Africa Partnership, the EU-China Dialogue, the EU-Latin America Caribbean exchanges (in collaboration with the EU-LAC Foundation), as well as in the Bologna Process Global Policy Forum, over the past decade, EUA has also played a significant role in developing Europe’s strategies and instruments for international higher education and research collaboration. Most recently, in a policy input to the upcoming EU global approach to research, education, innovation and youth, EUA promotes an agenda committed to global openness and partnership, while simultaneously advancing and protecting Europe’s values and sovereignty.

Projecting university values has been an overarching objective. While already prominent under the predecessor organisations, it has become an ever more urgent issue, as the move towards societies embracing civil and human rights has been less linear than hoped. Pressures exercised by state authorities and threats to the academic sector have become more varied due to economic and technical developments. EUA is a partner of Scholars at Risk, advocating for and supporting academics and students forced to flee their native countries. The new Magna Charta Universitatum is devoted to defending autonomy and academic freedom globally. The Association is an active member of the International Association of Universities (IAU), collaborating on the university sector’s contribution to the 2030 Agenda, to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals while, today, monitoring the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. As a UNESCO partner organisation, EUA contributes to the UNESCO Global Open Science Partnership towards a global consensus in the transition to Open Science.

Reflecting on the consequences for universities from known and unpredictable change, in “Universities Without Walls: A vision for 2030”, EUA has set out the scale of the challenges facing society and universities in the coming years. In the same way that Covid-19 displays no respect for international boundaries, environmental sustainability, digitalisation and artificial intelligence, demographic pressures and societal polarisation are shared concerns of nations, institutions and individuals all around the globe. Their resolution will demand coordinated, deeply collaborative, global actions. And just as university research and evidence-gathering proved critical to success in combating the pandemic, the higher education sector must play an equal or greater role, through research, education and community engagement in addressing the existential threats ahead.

Cohesive, global collaboration within the university sector itself will be crucial in the coming decades, but this will require more systematic and targeted engagement processes than we had in the past. A contribution to this could be a dedicated standing forum charged with discerning a collective sectoral position on critical global challenges, advocating for the sector where global power lies, fostering pan-national sectoral collaboration and mediating inter-regional diversity through dialogue so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Such a forum should include university associations from all global regions through a representation model that ensures manageable scale, efficiency and effectiveness. Clear added value at minimal cost must be among the founding principles.

With 20 years of experience in reaching out, a clear vision of the challenges and opportunities ahead, EUA is positioned and minded to partner in reimagining university global engagement, fit for our purposes and responsibilities ahead.


This article was written on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European University Association and the launch of “Universities without walls: A vision for 2030”.



Michael Gaebel
European University Association

Michael Gaebel is Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association.

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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