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Alliances of European Universities: an unprecedented initiative at the crossroads?

26 February 2021

Ludovic Thilly, Executive Board Chair
Jürgen Barkhoff, Executive Board Vice-Chair


Since the end of 2020, all the 41 Alliances of European universities have officially started to develop their ambitious work plans, aiming at “accelerating the transformation of higher education institutions into the universities of the future with structural, systemic and sustainable impact” [ref].

During the first semester of 2021, most of the 17 first Alliances (selected in 2019) will enter in the second half of their (first) funding period: this will coincide with the launch, by the European Commission, of a consultation process on a “EU Higher Education Transformation Agenda” for the promotion of synergies between the European (Higher) Education Area, E(H)EA, and the new European Research Area, ERA. In parallel, the European Council plans to adopt in May 2021 “Conclusions on European Universities initiative – Bridging higher education, research, innovation and society: paving the way for a new dimension in European higher education” (as outlined here). These developments demonstrate that Alliances of European Universities are becoming major actors at the intersection of EHEA and ERA and as testbeds for maximum synergies between all missions of the Knowledge Square.

In January 2021, the Coimbra Group Executive Board launched a series of consultations with the 12 Working Group Chairs and the Rectors Advisory Group on the impact of the European Universities initiative on 1) individual member universities (whether they were members of a selected Alliance or not) and 2) member’s engagement in Coimbra Group activities. These consultations were undertaken in order to better support the Alliances with network-wide initiatives.

It is worth recalling that 32 out of the 41 Coimbra Group universities are now a member of a selected Alliance: therefore, the Executive Board remains very committed to ensure that this initiative can also benefit members that are not (yet) in Alliances. The Alliance related Coimbra Group’s dissemination activities to all network members is partly based on the official associated partnership to four Alliances (CHARM-EU, Circle U., EC2U and Una Europa) and the organisation of multiplier events [such as our Coimbra Group webinar on 10 June 2020].

The results of our internal consultation on the impact of Alliances can be summarized in the following key findings: while building up the Alliances is currently extremely resource demanding, members are keen to see them and plan them as complementary to network activities and strive towards a balanced approach between engagement within the network and their Alliance.

The Coimbra Group is fully committed to accompanying and supporting the European Universities Alliances to the benefit of all our member universities. We are concerned, however, about the potential negative impact on the existing international cooperation ecosystem of long-standing and impactful networks such as the Coimbra Group, especially if adequate funding and supports are not allocated to Alliances by European and national funders. This is particularly pressing given the enormous expectations placed on them to become key actors of EHEA and ERA as outlined above. There is already an obvious asymmetry in the efforts of the European Commission on the one side and of the national authorities on the other side in supporting the Alliances, both financially and in terms of the necessary regulatory flexibility. Such asymmetries need to be urgently addressed and the Executive Board calls on European and national policymakers to ensure that the “Council Conclusions on the European Universities Initiative” mentioned above will not become a missed opportunity, but will deliver concrete support to Alliances rather than just a catalogue of good intentions.