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Stephane Berghmans argues that it is time for the European Research Area to leave the Brussels bubble and become a reality for universities across Europe, especially as the next EU R&I framework programme starts to take shape.

It is hard to believe that it has been two years since I wrote an Expert Voices article on the new European Research Area (ERA). Back in 2021, the European University Association (EUA) was advocating, alongside other R&I stakeholders, to be allowed to sit at the table with member states, associated countries and the European Commission to co-create the new ERA. We were successful, and now speak eye-to-eye with these policy makers on the ERA Forum, along with the representatives of six other sectors.

The next step will be to ensure that national stakeholders are just as engaged with ERA. First, we need to raise the visibility of ERA beyond the Brussels bubble. Second, we must convince member states and national stakeholders to discuss ERA, as we do at European level.

I might be biased, but I would say that, in Brussels, the university sector is already the best coordinated and most vocal of all ERA stakeholders. As we pursue the implementation of the current ERA Policy Agenda (2022-2024) and start co-designing the next one (2025-2027), the engagement and acceptance of universities within this European-level dialogue is an essential asset. Among the member states, there is no longer any question about our presence in the ERA Forum, as our contribution is listened to – and, more importantly, valued.

The road to the ERA Forum

Nonetheless, to achieve this position the university sector had to step up to the challenge. At the outset, eleven European associations and networks* representing the sector in Brussels gathered and agreed to work together towards the new ERA. This was not a given. With such a diverse group, we do not always hold the exact same position. Indeed, we often compete for space in the policy sphere. Therefore, further building trust has been key.

When EUA sits on the ERA Forum it does not only speak for itself, but as the representative of all these organisations and their combined membership. We are able to speak with one voice, while highlighting the diversity within our sector. This is an achievement we can be proud of, but more importantly, this unity will be a prime asset for upcoming battles, such as the development of the next EU R&I framework programme.

Getting out of Brussels

We now need to achieve the same at national level. Just a few days ago, I was speaking to researchers from an EUA member university and asked them if they knew about ERA. As is too often the case when I ask this question, no one raised their hand. I’m afraid it is not much different when I speak to university leaders. ERA might be a reality for us in Brussels, but it must still become a reality for stakeholders across the EU. Yet, most of the current 17 ERA actions are of foremost relevance for universities and their leaders. Just to give a few significant examples:

  • Action 13: is dedicated to universities as it aims to empower higher education institutions;
  • Action 4: aims to promote attractive research careers, talent circulation and mobility;
  • Action 17: is focused on enhancing public research institutions’ strategic capacity by strengthening research management; and of course,
  • Action 3: is there to provide the needed support from member states to the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment and the reform of research assessment.

Shaping the next Policy Agenda

Beyond the current ERA actions and their impact on universities, university leadership must consider the next ERA Policy Agenda, which has started to be designed. This time around, stakeholders will be consulted in each member state. From July until the end of this year, ministries are to consult with stakeholders in their country to hear which ERA actions need to be tackled in the next agenda cycle starting in 2025. This is a unique opportunity to advocate for the conditions our sector needs to enable research. Not least because the Commission and member states want to see close links between the next ERA Policy Agenda and the next framework programme.

So, what can you do? If you are in one of the lucky countries where ministries have already established an ERA consultation process, please engage and make your voice heard. If your ministry has not yet put such a process in place, reach out to them, let them know that they should do so and that you want to have your say. As for EUA, what will we do? After the summer, we will start a series of webinars to demystify ERA for our members. I hope to see many of you there.

*EUA, Aurora, CESAER, the Coimbra Group, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU), EuroTech Universities, The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, SPARC Europe, UAS4EUROPE, UNICA and the Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN).


Stephane Berghmans
European University Association

Stephane Berghmans is Director of Research and Innovation at EUA.


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