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Insights from Coimbra Group report on Covid-19 impact contribute to inspire future implementation measures of the EU recovery instrument

30 June 2020

In the May issue of the Coimbra Group newsletter we announced the publication of a report on the practices of our member universities in response to the Covid-19 crisis. We were happy to be approached by Ms Anna Panagopoulou, Acting Director, Research & Innovation Outreach at the Directorate General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) of the European Commission earlier this month, who reached out to us to discuss the insights from this report and envisage in which concrete ways the EU can further support universities through the EU recovery instrument Next Generation EU.

Dr Ann Ryan, Chair of the Coimbra Group Research Support Officers Working Group and Dr Gunda Huskobla, Chair of the Coimbra Group Doctoral Studies Working Group, who authored the chapters related to doctoral and research activities, attended the meeting, together with the Chair of the Executive Board, Prof. Ludovic Thilly and the staff at the Coimbra Group Office.

The Coimbra Group outlined the many ways in which universities are combatting the pandemic and how the research that is being carried out is multidisciplinary and therefore not limited to targeting the immediate health and medical challenges, but addresses societal, economic and cultural challenges, too. Insights from fundamental research have been harnessed in finding solutions to the pandemic and this is why it is important that fundamental research continues to be supported. Furthermore, what has come to the fore is the critical importance of Social Sciences and Humanities which demonstrates how multidisciplinary research is what will enable us to re-think and re-order society.

The Covid-19 crisis is posing a number of challenges to the practical implementation of research, in that access to critical research has been limited and complicated, due to the lockdown and the consequent sanitary restrictions. As a result, although research as such did not come to a halt (many researchers pivoted from lab-based research to data analysis) the move to remote work brought along issues of inequality, as researchers with caring responsibilities, women in particular, have been impacted the most. The crisis is also hampering the career progression of doctoral candidates, who will need time-to-degree as well as funding extensions for their PhD studies.

In light of the above findings, the recommendations we have conveyed through our report and to DG RTD are people-based and include support for human capital in general and particularly for young researchers, so as to avoid that the crisis has a detrimental impact on the next generation of researchers. From their side, DG RTD explained that their aim is to provide as much flexibility as it is allowed by the current framework programmes and that the recovery package will include top-up funding for research that addresses the Covid-19 crisis. Synergies with the Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture and the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policies will also be explored.

With regard to policy developments, Director Panagopoulou announced that although the ongoing study on the Future of Universities will be concluded this summer, the consultation process will continue in the coming months as there are some aspects that further need to be analyzed in depth. Furthermore, the Communication on the European Research Area, which is expected to be published on 22 July, will set out new policy developments.

Bringing together input from 33 universities across Europe, the report “Practices at Coimbra Group Universities in response to the COVID-19 – A Collective Reflection on the Present and Future of Higher Education in Europe” provides a snapshot of the situation at Coimbra Group universities during the period coinciding with the pandemic outbreak and lockdown in Europe (end of February/early March to April 2020): the Executive Board, the Office and the Working Groups will continue to carefully monitoring the situation at universities and promoting cooperation among our members. Constant dialogue with the European Commission will also be maintained to ensure that the EU recovery instrument, Next Generation EU, does include relevant measures for universities which have also been severely impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.