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The Momentum for Innovation

29 January 2021

Professors Axel Freimuth, Valérie Schüller, Bernhard Eitel, Walter Rosenthal and Alfred Forchel, respectively Rectors/Presidents of the Universities of Cologne, Göttingen, Heidelberg, Jena and Würzburg


The year 2020 and Germany‘s 13th Presidency of the Council of the European Union was marked by the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic has proven to be a particular challenge for the Member States, and the European Union. Pragmatic action with democratic decision-making to find the right balance between infection prevention measures and fundamental human rights have been difficult tasks. To find common solutions within 27 Member States has been equally challenging.

Nevertheless, important decisions have been made. The EU research ministers adopted the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research, thereby strengthening the protection of academic freedom in Europe. The Bonn Declaration shall also reinforce the new European Research Area with regards to citizens’ engagement and society´s trust in science.

The EU Council and the European Parliament agreed not only on the seven-year EU Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027 but also on the €750 billion ”Next Generation EU” recovery fund, including a rule-of-law conditionality in the EU budget and the possibility for the European Commission to contract debts. These truly historical decisions with their focus to invest in the green and digital transitions will have a strong and sustainable impact on the further development of the EU and the deepening of European integration.

For this, the research and education conducted at our universities are of central importance as well. Research, scientific achievements and innovation can contribute to further developing societies and to solving the pressing challenges of our times. These days, this is probably best illustrated by the demand of vaccines that have been developed, especially in Europe, in record time.

The pandemic has also been a tremendous challenge for our universities, and it is remarkable to what extent we have managed to secure research and teaching in safe conditions for students, staff, and researchers. Many universities have developed new and creative concepts for digital teaching and learning, conferences and symposia were quickly transferred into the virtual space.

Some of these creative concepts will prove to be sustainable after the pandemic and shape new ways on how we do research, teach and achieve a modern learning environment. At the same time, the rise of this new digital culture represents an outstanding opportunity to deepen European cooperation in research and education. Through digital means, educational institutions, within the EU and all over the world, have virtually gotten closer together. International exchange thus can become a daily routine not only for researchers, but for students and teachers as well. At the same time, it helps reduce the impact of travel on the environment. Of course, there are limitations to this. But the potential is great and should be exploited.

The European Universities Initiative gives the best conditions for realizing this potential. If it is done right, it will profoundly advance the integration of the European Higher Education system and of the European Union as well, in a way that the Erasmus Programme has already been doing for decades. The Erasmus Programme is just a first step towards the realisation of the idea of European Universities. The whole spectrum of a university needs to be addressed in its entirety. A comprehensive understanding of European university funding is necessary. In addition to that, we deeply regret that students from Great Britain will no longer take part in the Erasmus Programme. An important task will now be to find new means of preserving and further developing our collaborations with British universities.

In difficult times like these, solidarity, empathy and mutual support are most important. While massive challenges and drastic changes seem daunting at first glance, they often also incorporate a creative momentum for innovation. Let us carry this momentum forward.