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Confinement due to the coronavirus is a great challenge for the international mobility of researchers and students, but international collaboration remains crucial for universities. EUA experts Thomas Jorgensen and Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik discuss the results of a major survey on the importance of international strategic institutional partnerships for universities across Europe, including the European Universities Initiative.

Although international mobility is threatened due to the coronavirus pandemic, international collaboration in research and innovation has never been so important. Many universities are working hard with partners across Europe and beyond to find solutions to the most pressing and life-threatening challenges.

At the same time, confinement is a great challenge for the international mobility of researchers and students. It is also an opportunity to rethink higher education internationalisation beyond physical mobility.

recent survey of more than 200 higher education institutions across Europe, conducted by the European University Association and published on 27 April, confirms the strategic importance of international collaboration for universities across Europe, including through long-term institutional partnerships and alliances. 

It also reveals how higher education institutions across Europe see the European Universities Initiative (EUI), a high-profile EU instrument for building university alliances currently being piloted. 

Global actors

Many of the institutions surveyed are truly global actors, cooperating with partners around the world. However, when asked about their top partner region, the EU was the clear leader.

EU funding is key for cooperation among European universities. Nearly all respondents use the Erasmus+ programme and about 90 per cent are engaged in EU-funded research projects. 

While about half of respondents engage in other types of multilateral research collaboration outside EU programmes, only a quarter receive funding from a multilateral programme for this. And only about 20 per cent mentioned receiving multilateral funding for cooperation and mobility in learning and teaching from a source other than the EU.

The interest in the universities initiative is high: 59 per cent of respondents are participating in the pilot calls and another 27 per cent wish to apply in the future. But international strategic partnerships between institutions are not new. Many have existed for a long time and others have been set up in recent years, often building on previous collaborations. 

Respondents expect participating in the EUI to bring benefits that square well with their general goals for internationalisation. Enhancing the quality of learning and teaching is at the top of the list, followed by six others rated as very important by about two thirds of respondents. 

These are increased attractiveness; increased visibility and international standing; boosting student and staff mobility; strengthening links between different university missions; developing a more strategic approach towards international collaboration; and helping to build Europe and foster European integration and cohesion. 

Call for cohesion

But responding institutions also see the initiative bringing a number of challenges. First among these is the need to provide substantial amounts of co-funding and ensuring long-term sustainability. The most frequently cited reasons for not participating are a lack of funding and other resources, time constraints, and the difficulty of finding partners.

Only a small number of countries provide co-funding for participation in the EUI. Respondents from five—France, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain—reported receiving extra funding from their government for developing an application, while respondents from six—Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain—had received such funding develop an alliance that had been approved at European level. 

This shows the unevenness of the playing field, and makes it even more important to focus on improving the framework conditions for universities across Europe. Fostering cohesion will strengthen the international competitiveness of European higher education and research as a whole. 

For most respondents, the top five recommendations for the future of the EUI are: higher grants; follow-up funding; the elimination of legal and administrative obstacles to transnational collaboration; the development of the research dimension; and increasing synergies with other EU funding programmes beyond Erasmus+. 

In line with these results, the EUA has called for a balanced and focused approach to the future development of the initiative. The alliances should be given the flexibility and leeway they need to develop, while ensuring the link with policy processes and frameworks such as the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area. 


This article was originally published on Research Professional on 11 May 2020.



Thomas Jorgensen
European University Association

Thomas Jørgensen is Director of Policy Coordination and Foresight at the European University Association.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik
European University Association

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik is Deputy Director of Policy Coordination and Foresight at the European University Association.

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