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Coimbra Group response to the COVID-19 crisis

31 March 2020

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

It has been now a month or so that the coronavirus outbreak has started to hit Europe, with already dramatic consequences in Italy, Spain, France and many other European countries. European States are gradually taking measures that are converging towards the total confinement of their populations to limit the spread of the virus. These measures are necessary but have a severe impact on all activities of our society, among which are the economy but also access to education at all levels, including higher education.

In the past weeks, most of the European universities had to switch completely to remote working and online teaching, while managing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on students and staff: in particular the repatriation of students and staff on mobility abroad has mobilised most of our resources. As the duration of the confinement measures is announced to last at least several more weeks, universities are now gradually developing procedures to ensure business continuity in all their mission fields: education, research, innovation and service to society.

The Coimbra Group network was also deeply affected by the COVID-19 crisis but thanks to the mobilization of all the actors, in particular the Brussels Office staff and Working Group Chairs and Vice-Chairs, we have been able to postpone or organise online versions of all the scheduled upcoming events and meetings. Regarding the Annual Meeting next June, we are in constant contact with our colleagues from Montpellier and we will soon provide information to all our member universities.

We would like to thank our new Office Director, Ms. Emmanuelle Gardan, who anticipated all possible scenarios: her very professional approach has enabled to ensure business continuity of our Brussels Office and of the whole network, while securing the safety of our Office staff now working remotely.

Since the very first days of the COVID-19 crisis, we have started to reflect on how we could transform this unprecedented situation into an opportunity for our network, as we have always done in the past, for sharing good practices in managing such an extraordinary crisis . This reflection has started with the help of the Chairs and Vice-Chairs of the Working Groups on Academic Exchange and Mobility, Education Innovation, Doctoral Studies, Research Support Officers. This anticipated discussion allowed us to respond immediately to a request from the European Commission on 20 March about the most urgent measures to be taken regarding the crisis management in the context of the repatriation of students and staff on mobility, and also with respect to the application of the “force majeur” clause of the Erasmus+ programme: the first response from Coimbra Group can be found here.

This reflection will soon be extended to all Working Groups and member universities, through a comprehensive online questionnaire addressing all aspects of academic missions. The collected responses will enrich our collegial dialogue, might assist member universities in their own crisis management through the sharing of experiences and ideas and should also help in the definition of relevant practical and policy guidelines for the Higher Education system overall.

In front of such a shock, we might feel profoundly disoriented but, as research-led universities with strong civic missions, it is also our duty to address the many questions that are shaking our society: what is happening to us? How can we best support our national health services and the global community to fight the pandemic on all fronts? How can we better understand and counter the individual and collective trauma, which so profoundly disrupts our daily lives and unsettles our certainties.

It is imperative to reflect on the manyfold aspects of the COVID-19 crisis and their consequence for higher education in order to counter them, chart the way through this crisis and look towards the future after the immediate crisis. We will perform this exercise at Coimbra Group level, because we are stronger together, even though we have to stay physically apart for a while.

We are sending our best wishes to all Coimbra Group colleagues and friends and their families. Stay safe, stay strong.