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2020-2021, an unprecedented academic year for the European Higher Education, Research and Innovation Areas

31 August 2020

Ludovic Thilly and Jürgen Barkhoff, Chair and Vice-Chair of the Coimbra Group Executive Board

The agenda of the 2019-2020 academic year was always expected to be busy with the appointment of a new European Commission, the final discussion rounds and decisions on Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe programmes, the second call of the pilot phase for European Universities Alliances, the negotiations around the UK leaving the EU, among many other important topics and events. All these developments were expected to have an important impact on the European Higher Education, Research and Innovation landscapes, but nobody could have predicted the coronavirus pandemic and its grave consequences across the world and in Europe in particular.

The COVID-19 crisis already had severe impact on our societies, economies and access to education at all levels, including higher education, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Within a few weeks, most (European) universities had to develop procedures to ensure business continuity in all their mission fields and the 2020-2021 academic year will unfortunately still be severely disrupted by the pandemics.

Nevertheless, universities in general, and Coimbra Group universities in particular, have demonstrated an incredible capacity of resilience and adaptation: such strengths allow us to remain optimistic about the future of European higher education and research systems despite all the challenges.

It is in this specific context that the Coimbra Group Executive Board selected the following strategic priorities for 2020-2021, after consultation with the Rectors Advisory Group (online meeting of 11 June 2020):

1) maintain Coimbra Group advocacy activities, in particular regarding

  • ambitious budgets for Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe programmes, and the recovery instrument “Next Generation EU”;
  • the support to European Universities Alliances;
  • the renewal of European Education and Research Areas (EEA and ERA);
  • the synergies between higher education, research and innovation, which traditionally have always been the hallmark of Coimbra Group universities;

2) assist Coimbra Group universities in their management of the COVID-19 crisis on all fronts

3) strengthen Coimbra Group engagement with society

4) develop policies, tools and guidelines to limit the effects of BREXIT (with or without a deal).

The first series of priorities will translate into continued series of media campaigns in cooperation with other European university associations, participation to meetings at the European Commission and Parliament (and other stakeholders), and organisation of dedicated events, similar to the recent webinar on European Universities Alliances that gathered about 600 participants on 10 June 2020 (read more about this event here).

The second series of priorities will take its departure from the Coimbra Group study paper on Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education and Research, published in May 2020 (see full report here) to share experiences and ideas, and define relevant practical and policy guidelines for Coimbra Group universities and the Higher Education system overall. After consultation with the Rectors Advisory Group, the Executive Board has also decided to launch a series of discussions with Working Groups to establish concrete activities in favour of Virtual Exchange (VE), thus strengthening the Coimbra Group also as a VE platform. The objective is not to replace physical mobility (which was sorely lacking during the COVID-19 crisis) but to promote complementary and blended mobility schemes to the academic community.

Engagement with society will continue through the continued promotion of the Poitiers Declaration and new series of events and policy debates on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promoted by the United Nations. In particular, the 2021 annual conference, hosted by Charles University in Prague in June 2021 will foster important debate on “Sustainable Universities in the 21st century” as the topic for its public conference.

Regarding BREXIT, the Coimbra Group will continue to follow the situation closely and will mobilize all its actors and resources: in particular, we are ready to support mobility with our UK members using our own network of 41 European universities and our own Student Exchange Network (SEN), created twenty years ago and recently revised by our Academic Exchange and Mobility Working Group.

It is obvious that these topics are intimately intertwined and the Executive Board members are looking forward to continuing working with all Coimbra Group actors in our well established collegial dialogue.

We wish you the best possible new academic year!