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LONDON — British universities are lobbying hard to stay fully involved in a flagship EU scheme aimed at bringing higher education institutions closer together.
As Brussels wrestles with the future of education cooperation on the Continent, U.K. institutions fear they could lose both funding and the vital academic links they gain from the European Universities Initiative (EUI).
The initiative has funded 41 alliances of up to 11 universities, working to develop common curricula and research activities, share ideas on issues such as sustainability and equality on campus, and promote student and staff mobility.
At least seven U.K. institutions became full members of alliances before the end of the Brexit transition period in December, with many more taking part as associate partners.
But Britain’s decision to quit the wider EU Erasmus+ mobility scheme, through which the EUI is funded, means they may no longer be able to bid for EU funding to cover the costs of their participation.
“We want to be involved, completely engaged, ideally as a full partner,” said Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex. “But if that is not possible legally then as an associate partner, playing as full a part as possible.”
His institution is involved in the YUFE alliance, with partners in countries including Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
‘Closer and deeper’
EU countries are currently debating the next phase of cooperation in education, and that could affect the participation of non-EU countries including the U.K. and Switzerland in the EUI as well as in other parts of Erasmus+.
Still in a developmental phase, the EUI is part of plans to build a so-called European Education Area, and is expected to receive a substantial funding boost once its pilot ends in 2023. The goal is to develop about 20 “European Universities” by 2024: networks of universities letting students get a degree by studying in several EU countries.
French President Emmanuel Macron laid the foundations in a speech in 2017, when he proposed the creation of “a network of universities across Europe with programs that have all their students study abroad and take classes in at least two languages.” He said these alliances should offer “real European semesters and real European diplomas.”
A draft document prepared by the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU, dated January 21 and seen by POLITICO, says EU ministers want the Commission to foster “closer and deeper” cross-border cooperation between universities, and to use Erasmus+ to boost mobility further. They also want the Commission to find ways to help those involved in EUI alliances deliver joint degrees.
But the document does not mention the participation of third countries. Clarity could come this spring, when the Commission is expected to detail the parts of Erasmus+ that will be open for third countries including the U.K.
Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, which represents universities including in the U.K., said the EU needs to clarify the purpose of the EUI and make a decision on third countries.
“Is it a program that contributes to European political integration, so universities helping to build Europe, or is it using European resources to enhance quality in universities? If it is the latter, then I think there is no reason why countries like the U.K. and Switzerland cannot [be involved]. It comes down to a very political question,” he said.
British universities say that in the worst-case scenario they will be downgraded from full members to associate partners in the alliances, diminishing their influence and forcing them to contribute their own money at a time in which, according to Forster, all U.K. universities have been hit by the pandemic and “are operating in constraint financial circumstances.”
“I hope that we can replace all of the funding, but it is not just an issue of replacing the direct support from the Commission for the European Universities Initiative project. U.K. universities have also lost access to all Erasmus+ funding,” he added.
Global versus European
British university leaders are pressing both the Commission and the U.K. government as they try to secure continued access to public funding for these activities.
Some of those interviewed for this article argued Whitehall had so far shown indifference to their future participation in the EUI, and appeared not to have the bandwidth to address the issue.
They are wary that U.K. ministers might see their lobbying as an attempt to prioritize Europe over the rest of the world, but argue that involvement in EU-funded alliances is a vital part of their international strategies, and believe it lines up with the U.K.’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda.
“We’ve got many partnerships across the world, but what is different about our YUFE European University alliance is the breadth and depth of the relationship we are trying to build in relation to student and staff mobility, common programs, sharing of best practice and strategic alignment,” Forster said.
Seán Hand, deputy pro-vice-chancellor of the U.K.’s University of Warwick said the government “has scarcely had the opportunity to focus on the complexities and specificities” of this issue. His institution is a full member of the EUTOPIA alliance, involving six other universities.
“I have to say that it does occasionally feel as though someone anonymous responded to the demand for a policy clarification by taking the word ‘European’ out of a document and just replacing it with the word ‘global’,” he said.
A Department for Education spokesperson did not address these claims but said the government is “seeking clarity from the European Commission about what projects U.K. institutions may be eligible to participate in the future.”
A spokesperson for the Commission said it “deeply regrets” the U.K. government’s decision not to join the Erasmus+ program after Brexit, adding it remains “open and ready to negotiate any future request” to do so.
Hand said the alliances are vital to stop universities developing “an isolationist perspective” on research and education. “Warwick never regarded the initiative as being ultimately about money or access,” he said. “It would be a shame and a loss to everyone if our campus was to become less international and less cosmopolitan.”
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