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Are EU and Member States policy makers truly willing to engage and dialogue with Universities?

30 November 2021

Ludovic Thilly, Executive Board Chair
Claudia Cavadas, Executive Board Vice-Chair


Four years after the official launch of the European Universities Initiative (EUI), the European Commission issued today a third call for proposals for the EUI under the Erasmus+ programme. This call reflects the specific stage in which the Initiative currently stands. One sub-call (topic 1) is indeed directly geared towards – but not limited to – the 17 alliances of European Universities selected in 2019 which can claim for further funding after the initial pilot phase, including an optional financial bonus in case of membership expansion. The other strand (topic 2) is an opportunity to be seized by higher education institutions interested in setting up possible new European Universities alliances.

We are pleased that our request to release the call for new alliances in 2022, and not to wait until 2024 as initially planned, has been promptly responded by the European Commission. We also warmly welcome the fact that new European Universities will emerge after this call thus contributing to further advance the transformation of the higher education sector in Europe. We nevertheless regret that the European Commission did not decide to provide incentive funding for the existing alliances prioritizing the acceleration of their integration independently from membership expansion.

It is also encouraging to see that on 26 November 2021 the Ministers of the Member States of the European Union (EU) in charge of Research took some awaited steps towards implementing the new European Research Area (ERA) by agreeing on its future governance and on the specific actions that are needed to achieve this renewed European vision. The 27 approved the recommendation on A Pact for Research and Innovation in Europe. A non-binding document, the Pact sets out key common principles and values for R&I in the EU such as: the freedom of scientific research; the pursuit of excellence; gender equality and equal opportunities for all; the free circulation of researchers and knowledge; and societal responsibility. The Pact for R&I also identifies 16 strategic priority areas where Member States commit to develop joint actions in support of the ERA. However, the flexibility of the approach based on volunteerism and variable geometry could complexify international university cooperation in the future.

The Ministers adopted conclusions on the future governance of the ERA, following months of discussions and negotiations about the place to be assigned to stakeholders, among them those from the university sector. The Coimbra Group, together with the other networks and R&I organisations, has relentlessly called for the structured and sustained inclusion of stakeholders in the co-creation and implementation of the European Research Area (see for instance the letter sent on 4 October to Slovenian Minister of Education, Science and Sport, Simona Kustec, and EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel).

Member States eventually opted in their conclusions to reserve the right to decide to which meetings stakeholder organisations will be able to participate. Furthermore, many uncertainties still remain about how the two-dimensional governance structure adopted will concretely be put into practice: on one side, a limited number of representative EU-level umbrella organisations, including the university sector, shall participate in the ERA Forum (horizontal governance) while, on the other side, the European Commission has to set up an open register for all interested R&I stakeholder organisations to engage with the ERA Forum sub-groups on specific topics of interest (vertical governance).

The Coimbra Group deeply deplores the fact that universities, which count among the principal actors of the implementation of the ERA, are not fully integrated in the ERA governance on equal footing with the Member States and the European Commission.

Yet it is important to think positively, look further ahead and prepare the ground for the next policy developments. The capacity of the different university associations to demonstrate their unity as a sector has been impactful, and this at the highest level. The importance given to stakeholder involvement by the Slovenian Presidency of the EU Council and its efforts to reach a consensus on this issue should be acknowledged and commended. Let’s now make the most of it, in a collegial spirit, to the benefit of all our member universities across Europe.

Last but not least, the conclusions of the Competitiveness Council include as annex the policy agenda of the European Research Area for the coming three years as a first translation of the Pact for R&I into concrete action. This agenda for 2022-2024 is made up of proposals submitted by the Member States and the European Commission on which the stakeholders have been consulted. It consists of a diverse set of 20 actions of varying scope and impact, some of them being already underway as those on research careers and the reform of the research assessment systems.

As in the past, we at the Coimbra Group continue stressing the need to align in a more holistic manner the agendas of the European Research Area and the European Education Area so as to send clear signals of synergies to universities. We are not there yet.

In light of these developments and beyond rhetoric and new co-creation strategies, let us ask ourselves: Are policymakers truly willing to engage and dialogue with Universities in a meaningful and sustained way? Universities play a vital role and have huge responsibilities not only in the European Education Area or the European Research Area but globally in today’s world. It has never been timelier to include them in policy-making. And this, at all layers of the multi-level governance framework as the speakers argued at the Coimbra Group annual public conference on 17 June 2021. In this context traditional university networks can make an essential contribution and the Coimbra Group stands ready to do its share.