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European Strategy for Universities: is the future now?

31 January 2022

Ludovic Thilly, Executive Board Chair

On 18 January 2022, the European Commission (EC) released the long-awaited European Strategy for Universities (ES4U), after about a year of consultations with major stakeholders from the University sector, incl. University Associations and Alliances of European Universities. This text was accompanied by a proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation. Less than two days after this official presentation, Coimbra Group Rectors’ Advisory Group and Executive Board members had the opportunity to engage in a direct exchange of views on the ES4U with European Commission Directors-General Jean-Eric Paquet (Research & Innovation) and Themis Christophidou (Education, Youth, Sport, Culture), who pointed out the role of university’s top leadership as critical for the future success of the new strategy.

These announcements from the European Commission coincided with the launch of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union and, on 25 January 2022 in Paris, its first informal meeting of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Research and Innovation. The press conference held by the French, Czech and Swedish Ministers, together with the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, highlighted the “need to make further progress for the benefit of the entire European sector of higher education”. Ministers committed to “begin work in the coming months to remove the barriers facing alliances such as European Universities, by providing them with a set of instruments and contributing towards securing their future by exploiting synergies between European, national and regional financing mechanisms”. The informal ministerial meeting was followed by the Forum of Universities for the future of Europe on 25-26 January 2022, that brought together representatives of European higher education stakeholders, Member States, the European Commission and Alliances of European Universities. It has offered a timely space for debate and reflection on the role of universities in the Europe of tomorrow, with a view to contributing to the ES4U and its next steps.

All together, these communications and events are constitutive of a “higher education package” that may have an important impact on the European Higher Education and Research Areas as a whole, but also on our universities, incl. on their strategies, policies and sustainability. We deeply regret that this higher education package comes at a time when a major issue has still been left unsolved to date: the absence of Switzerland and the United Kingdom from the list of associated countries to the Horizon Europe programme. The Coimbra Group therefore urges, once again, the European Union institutions and its Member States, the Swiss government, and the British government, to act responsibly and take a long-term, constructive stance on the situation.

In conclusion, the Coimbra Group welcomes the European Strategy for Universities in that it proposes a roadmap of actions with the potential to affect all missions of the Knowledge Square: as such, it should not be underestimated. The strategy explicitly acknowledges the unique position of universities at the crossroads of education, research, innovation, serving society and economy. Let’s now hope that the ES4U’s “call to Member States and higher education institutions across Europe to join forces” will be heard. The Coimbra Group will continue to engage closely with any further developments and ensure that it does not turn into another statement of good intentions.