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French Presidency of the EU Council in the fields of higher education, research and innovation: kick-starting a new era?

29 July 2022

Professors Anne Fraïsse, Philippe Augé and Virginie Laval, Presidents of, respectively, University Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, University of Montpellier and University of Poitiers

The first semester of 2022 will sadly be remembered for the many significant historical and political developments that happened in Europe, among which is, of course, the tragic invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The resurgence of war at the doorsteps of Europe created an immediate reaction of solidarity from the European Union, Member States, citizens, and also our academic communities. We are all very proud of such an attitude, which aligns truly with the academic values promoted individually by all our long-established universities, as well as by the Coimbra Group network itself. The many problems are still to be solved, including the reconstruction of the Ukrainian (higher) education system and universities. Yet, we see that enduring solutions are currently under developments at all levels, notably with the support from the European Commission.

Under the auspices of the French Presidency of the EU Council, despite an agenda directed by elections in France in April 2022, significant advances have been achieved during the first semester of 2022. During this short period, several important policy documents have been issued in the fields of European higher education, research and innovation:

– on 18 January 2022, the European Commission released its European Strategy for Universities, accompanied by a proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation;

– on 8 March 2022, a conference of the EU ministers for higher education, research and innovation was held in Marseille with the aim of ensuring a coordinated approach regarding international coordination of European policies. The Marseille Declaration sets out nine values and principles shared by the Member States and the European Commission, such as the freedom of scientific research, ethics and integrity and open science. It provides a framework for the future embedded in fair, open, inclusive, participatory science that works for the common good, which will form the basis for dialogue with non-EU countries;

– On 5 April 2022, the EU ministers for higher education approved Council conclusions on a European strategy empowering higher education institutions for the future of Europe. Ministers also adopted the above-mentioned Recommendation on Building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation. The text invites the European Commission to explore the options and necessary steps towards a possible joint degree based on a common set of co-created European criteria.

These flagship initiatives represent only some of the numerous events and meetings that occurred during the French EU Presidency. We selected them because they form a “higher education package” that we hope will accelerate European Commission’s work on “strengthening the European dimension in higher education and research” in the upcoming years.

This package sets the scene by defining four “flagship initiatives” that will certainly have a substantial impact on our universities:

– the roll-out of the European universities initiative through Alliances;

– the definition of a potential legal status for Alliances of higher education institutions;

– the design and implementation of a future joint European degree;

– the scaling up of the European Student Card initiative.

This “higher education package” also reiterates that Universities need support to fulfil their roles of:

– “lighthouses of our European way of life”;

– “actors of change in the twin green and digital transitions”;

– “drivers of Europe’s global role and leadership”.

Our Coimbra Group universities DO have an important role to play in society and ARE key leading agents of the Knowledge Square: we thus warmly welcome these texts and the declarations of support to our Universities!

Yet, are European and national policymakers providing appropriate instruments and resources for Universities to fulfil these roles? The answer is, unfortunately: NO; not at the European level, nor  national levels.

Since the French EU Presidency positioned higher education, research and innovation higher in the agenda than ever before, time has come to be more demanding: Universities will only be successful in their missions if European and national policymakers facilitate their initiatives while safeguarding their autonomy with appropriate resources and supportive regulations. This is the price to pay to promote inclusive, innovative and interconnected European higher education, research and innovation areas. We are confident that the Coimbra Group will closely monitor the implementation of this unprecedented “higher education package”: we hope the 2022 French EU Presidency will not just been remembered as a lost opportunity but as the starting point of a new era!