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On the occasion of EUA’s 20th anniversary, Cardiff University President and Vice-Chancellor Colin Riordan analyses the role of the Association in a changing world. The piece highlights that while some of the old certainties may no longer be evident, working together across Europe – including the UK – has never been more important.

The European University Association (EUA) is distinguished both by its diversity and by its size, consisting as it does of more than 800 member universities drawn from 48 countries. This, surely, is positive. It means that the EUA interprets “Europe” in the broadest way, that there is dramatic diversity in the membership and that by inference, the member universities have much to learn from one another. Forty-eight countries means more than 50 university systems, with varying levels of funding, diverse funding sources and, doubtless, very different types and levels of autonomy.

But diversity can bring its own challenges. How can such a large membership organisation act effectively on behalf of its members, whose needs will differ widely? Almost all its members will be in other groupings focused on their own country, or in international alliances such as U21 where the commonalities are what brings the institutions together, rather than where they happen to be domiciled. The United Kingdom certainly has no shortage of such alliances, with many member universities that are also members of other international organisations such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities, or domestic ones like the Russell Group or Million+.

And yet the UK members of the EUA enjoy great advantages. The EUA can transcend even such far-reaching political changes as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. The large numbers of members from across Europe, along with its base in Brussels, means that the EUA does have a voice within the Union, and can make arguments directly to the Commission and other agencies in ways that members could not via other networks. Perhaps more importantly, the EUA has a global voice and collaborates with counterparts across the world, as Michael Gaebel and Michael Murphy have shown in the article “EUA global collaboration: past, present and future”.

The size, reach and influence of the EUA has been particularly important to UK universities since the decision to leave the EU in 2016. Whilst UK members were publicly supportive of remaining in the EU, the democratic decision to leave was clear and all accepted the outcome. Our position in the EU had changed literally overnight, but, crucially, our membership of the EUA had not, and still has not, even though the UK has now completed the Brexit process. The EUA’s support for UK participation in Horizon Europe — whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the parties — has been and remains unwavering and influential.

This partnership working is not a new phenomenon, for the UK played a key role in the origins and history of the EUA. Winston Churchill’s speech in Zurich on the United States of Europe set a context within which one of the predecessor organisations of the EUA, the Conference of European Rectors, could be conceived and ultimately flourish. Indeed, the meeting that eventually led to its formation — the very first Conference of European Rectors and Vice-Chancellors — took place in July 1955 in Cambridge. At that meeting, as Per Nyborg explains in “The roots of the European University Association”, many of the key issues that universities face across Europe even to this day were discussed. The critical importance of autonomy, the requirement to protect academic freedom, equality of opportunity and the avoidance of discrimination, internationalism, student support and adequate government funding: all of these issues and more come across the desks of the rectors and presidents of EUA member universities every day. As any university leader will attest, there is no easy answer to many of the challenges that we collectively face: as intolerance rather than the free exchange of views becomes increasingly the case, having a forum like the EUA, with a wide diversity of experiences and insights, is enormously helpful. Being able to refer to the reports on university autonomy commissioned and published by the EUA has had real and tangible effects, enabling many of us to point to the evidence for the importance of political independence as new legislation is promulgated in our various jurisdictions. Similarly, we can draw on regular surveys of the state of public funding in the various systems, or the journey towards net zero. The values of the post-World War II settlement, then, of freedom of expression, autonomy within a system of democratic accountability, equality and the public good, are all reflected in the work of the EUA to the benefit of its members.

And it is values that bind us. The commitment of the collective membership to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals allows the values to be lived. They provide a compass for our strategic direction that is independent of political changes, and they allow us to find common ground with our students and, indeed, future generations of students.

This brings me to a role that the EUA plays that is, in my view, perhaps its most important. There are times when world events create conditions that appear inimical to reconciliation, international understanding and the free exchange of ideas through research and education. The EUA was formed in the year that 9/11 took place, a turning point that shaped history for 20 years, culminating in 2021 in the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan. Through such periods the EUA is a symbol of international co-operation and understanding, and its member institutions can deploy their expertise, knowledge and resources for the common good and in ways that take into account the interests of future generations above all. This has been of real importance to the UK in recent years, and will continue to be so into the future.

That is why the EUA matters, and why it has endured for 20 years. While some of its members may have been in existence for centuries, the world moves on even for universities. In a changed and changing world where some of the old certainties regarding truth, facts, free expression and tolerance may no longer be so self-evident, working together across Europe in the broadest sense has never been more important.


Colin Riordan
Cardiff University

Colin Riordan is President and Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University.

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