European Universities Initiative: the balancing act between expansion and consolidation of alliances

EUA’s Clare Phelan and Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik take a closer look at the results of the third Erasmus+ call for European Universities and explain the importance of balance between the expansion and consolidation of alliances.

Expansion of the European Universities Initiative continues, but questions about its overall sustainability remain. With unwavering interest among university communities, the initiative continues to expand its reach. In July, the results of the third call marked another significant leap. More than 340 higher education institutions – participating as full partners – now make up 44 alliances. A fourth call, launched in early October, will likely give rise to new alliances as well as providing an opportunity for follow-up funding for alliances successful under the 2020 call. However, the target set out by the European Commission in the European Strategy for Universities to reach 60 alliances incorporating more than 500 higher education institutions by 2024 remains ambitious.

In parallel with plans for continued expansion, preparations are underway for the assessment of the pilot phase. This milestone coincides with the mid-term review of current EU funding programmes and represents an opportune moment to take a closer look at the evolution of the initiative to date.

Expansion and diversification

The outcomes of the 2022 call show a two-and-a-half-fold increase in the number of alliances since the initiative was launched. The increase in participating universities has followed a similar trajectory. In the broader conversation around European higher education and research cooperation, such a rapid proliferation of university alliances continues to spark questions about the long-term sustainability of European Universities and the impact alliance building may have on other forms of transnational collaboration within the sector.

Undoubtedly, the European Universities Initiative presents an innovative model for cooperation. But what makes its expansion interesting is not only the recent growth in terms of the number of institutions per alliance – an average of nine in the 2022 call compared to seven in the 2020 call – but the deliberately diverse make-up of alliances. In almost 80% of alliances, the composition includes no more than one member per country. Aside from encouraging a wide geographical mix, European Universities increasingly serve as networks for institutions with diverse profiles. Connecting the comprehensive with the discipline-specific, the urban with the regional, the long established with the newly created sparks a dynamism that builds on and complements existing models for cooperation. Thematically, the alliances are no less rich. Issues such as sustainability, digital transformation, multi-disciplinarity and European identity and values feature prominently on alliance agendas, reflecting key features of the initiative as well as the significance of these topics for universities across Europe.

Geographical spread

Following the 2022 call, higher education institutions in 31 countries now participate as full partners in the alliances. Countries represented include all EU member states, Iceland, Norway, Serbia and Turkey. Overall, this is an impressive reach for a relatively recent initiative. Under the most recent call, some alliances have expanded their partnership and geographical make-up by formally adding new members. Similarly, two thirds of participating countries have increased their institutional representation in alliances since the initiative was launched. But how is this reflected in the geographical spread? Perhaps predictably, the growth does little to improve balance. Following the trend seen with the 2020 call, 40% of the more than 340 participating higher education institutions are concentrated in Germany, France, Spain and Italy. Together, these four countries represent a significant proportion of Europe’s higher education institutions, and they are generally active in transnational university cooperation.

Enlargement and engagement

With the balance heavily weighted in favour of traditional powerhouses in European cooperation, how can continued expansion ensure that benefits are evenly distributed across participating countries and institutions? And perhaps more fundamentally, how can expansion serve the missions and objectives of individual alliances, while ensuring that balance is maintained with deepening engagement?  

Results from an EUA survey conducted in 2020 indicate that universities in Europe place enormous value on engagement with European partners. However, when we examine the diverse models for university cooperation across Europe, it becomes apparent that fruitful partnerships are not borne out of pressure to pre-determine trajectories and deliver on politically defined targets. Building meaningful collaboration takes time.  And outputs are contingent on many factors, notably the scope to build robust mechanisms for exchange and to set and adjust jointly pursued goals

Expansion and consolidation are both tools that should ultimately serve the overall academic vision. Choosing which of these is most appropriate at which stage is an important strategic question for alliances. What is certain is that for European Universities to keep pace with such accelerated growth, cooperation needs to be underpinned by a sense of common purpose, cultivated from the bottom up and supported by university leadership. To apply the long-established design principle “form follows function” to university collaboration, the academic vision must remain central in identifying goals, setting the agenda and driving collaboration formats. And crucially, for transnational cooperation to thrive in the long term, universities need enabling framework conditions, supportive regulatory environments and sustainable funding.

Sustainability and the bigger picture

Evidently, there is appetite for expansion within the sector. Calls continue to be competitive – 38% of proposals were awarded funding in 2020 and 2022 compared to 31% in 2019. But with further calls in 2023 and 2024, questions emerge around predicted growth. Can the momentum generated in the early calls be sustained? And if yes, can EU and national level funding mechanisms adequately align to support such accelerated growth?

Beyond the question of alliances’ sustainability, there is a need address big picture issues: what different types of transnational university cooperation are needed for universities to fulfil their missions? How should cooperation be supported into the future to build attractive and sustainable European higher education, research and innovation? These are important political issues that go beyond the technicalities of funding programmes. As such, they demand continuous dialogue and cooperation with relevant stakeholders at all levels.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Clare Phelan

Clare Phelan is Project and Policy Officer (Secretary General’s Office) at EUA.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik

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


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