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A collective outlook on the next academic year at Coimbra Group universities

31 July 2020

Professors Pilar Aranda Ramirez, Rosario Rizzuto, Cisca Wijmenga and Tomáš Zima, respectively Rectors of the Universities of Granada, Padova, Groningen and Charles University in Prague.


In autumn 2020, the European Commission will put forward a Communication on achieving the European Education Area by 2025. As part of the co-creation process of this Communication, we were pleased and honoured to be invited by Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, to an online consultation meeting on 3 July on the higher education dimension of this Communication (see the background note of this meeting on the Coimbra Group intranet here – members only).

Commissioner Gabriel elaborated on several initiatives the European Commission is currently developing, such as the European degree, the European framework for Recognition and Quality Assurance and the European framework for micro-credentials. The importance of inclusion, physical mobility and face-to-face interactions was highlighted in the meeting as well as the necessity for strengthening synergies between the European Education Area and the European Research Area and for safeguarding a global perspective to higher education cooperation.

The coronavirus crisis required a swift switch to online education at Coimbra Group universities. We managed to arrange this almost overnight due to the high professional standards and dedication of our teaching staff and the availability, at our IT centres, of the infrastructure required to support online education. Coimbra Group universities are characterised by international and diverse university communities comprising over 100 nationalities with important proportions of international students and staff. Despite the fact that many of them went back to their home countries, nearly 90% of our education continued through online provision.

What the crisis has taught us, however, is that social interactions among students and between students and teachers are extremely important. Besides, it also showed the importance and contribution of fundamental research towards Covid-19- related research, which is something that required the combined effort of many different disciplines. Not only do we need more insight into the virus itself, but also in behavioural aspects related to social distancing, lessons learned from the past, economic consequences, vaccine development and so on. Our students also became involved in community service related to the crisis and Covid-19 became sometimes a subject in their education

What does this crisis mean for the next academic year at Coimbra Group universities?

  1. We need to move to a blended learning concept where both the quality of the digital skills and the physical interaction need improvement. Such a concept might also contribute to a more sustainable world and reduce inequalities as the educational programmes are more widely accessible. To this end, we have to learn from each other, at the local, national and international level. Sharing best practices, courses and materials, and discussing effective quality assurance could be facilitated at a European level and rewarded in career paths. This also fits in the Open Science policy.
  2. Societal issues and big challenges should become part of curricula as well as the transdisciplinary aspects that come with it. We have to train global citizens who are able to tackle big problems and can interact easily with those having a different professional or cultural background. Having students from all over the world and the ability to collaborate across European universities is important in order to gather those diverse views.
  3. Mobility of students across Europe remains important to acquire the above mentioned competences. Quality of education across Europe needs to be assured if students can also follow part of their programme elsewhere. More modular systems, flexible programmes and recognition by means of microcredentials are required.

With the creation of European University Alliances, Europe is now in a position to fundamentally transform higher education and to remain an attractive place to study, to attract talent, and to integrate education with the European research agenda. We indeed perceive the European University Alliances as a laboratory for synergy between research, education, innovation and service to society. While the universities involved have first been concentrating on the development of innovative teaching in different forms (shared or newly developed courses, study programmes, in physical, blended or on-line formats), their teams have already been combining joint research with education, as the synergy of both is inseparable and represent the essence of universities. Besides, the research component of the alliances will now be strengthened through Horizon 2020 support. The Covid-19 crisis has also accelerated the process of innovation in education and research within the alliances.

The Coimbra Group has been very active in this initiative, having identified its potential from its inception and, following the resolution of the second pilot round, now has a total of 32 out of its 41 member universities in selected alliances. The Coimbra Group provides a platform acting as a source of information, cooperation and exchange of experiences for the member universities taking part in alliances and beyond. We very much hope that the European University Alliances will serve as a model of universities of the future.

The four authors of this editorial all actively participate in this initiative, through the Arqus (Granada and Padova), ENLIGHT (Groningen) and EU4+ (Charles University in Prague) alliances, where we hope to make significant contributions to the ambitious goals of the European Commission and of each of the participating universities.

In her concluding words, Commissioner Gabriel has expressed her commitment to include the vision and experience of all higher education stakeholders to transform higher education and we strongly encourage the Coimbra Group and all its members to keep engaging in this process.