European Universities initiative expands, focus reaffirmed on digital mobility

The EC proposed the European Universities initiative to EU leaders in 2017 as part of an overall vision for the creation of a European Education Area by 2025.

“The Commission is strongly responding to the call of students for more freedom to study across Europe”

Selected from 62 applications, the 24 new European Universities involve 165 institutions from 26 member states and other countries participating in the Erasmus+ program.

In total, a budget of up to €287 million is available for these 41 European Universities.

Each alliance will receive €5m from the Erasmus+ program and up to €2m from the Horizon 2020 program for three years to start implementing their plans and pave the way for other higher education institutions across the EU to follow.

The universities enhance the quality, inclusion, digitalisation and attractiveness of European higher education, according to the Commission, while also act as testbeds towards the “universities of the future”.

The €287m allocation from the EU budget means the European Education Area becomes a “tangible reality for many”, according to Margaritis Schinas, vice-president for Promoting the European Way of Life.

“The Commission is strongly responding to the call of students for more freedom to study across Europe, from teachers and researchers to better pool knowledge, and from higher education institutions to pool resources,” she said on July 9.

The European Universities are a key building block for the European Education Area, commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that deeper cooperation across borders, disciplines and cultures is the only way to recover from the crisis and to build resilience,” she noted.

The Commission has focused on building its digital mobility capacity in response to the pandemic after a mere 7% continued their higher education mobility period abroad as planned.

Sophia Eriksson Waterschoot, director Youth, Education and Erasmus+, said blended virtual and physical mobility had been embedded throughout the Erasmus program in response to the crisis.

The EC has given “quite a strong message” that institutions should take blended mobility seriously

“We have agreed to give organisational support for all mobility, whether they are virtual, blended or physical in the end,” she said.

A survey of the 17 initially selected European Universities shows that more than 60% consider that being part of the network had already been helpful in addressing the current difficulties linked to the crisis.

A further 80% of European Universities said they shared good practises and measures between them, Eriksson Waterschoot noted.

Good examples of projects the universities had worked on included the creation of virtual inter-university campuses, offering joint blended courses and common teaching units integrated into the curricula of all the member universities, the commission said.

The EC has given “quite a strong message” that institutions should take blended mobility seriously, and has actively encouraged “that the recognition of this mobility period in whatever format it may take shouldn’t be impacted”, Eriksson Waterschoot continued.

While the sector is still going through a learning period, she warned that one lesson learned is that universities, member states and students have “huge digital disparities”.

“This goes in terms of everything from IT equipment, connectivity, space, but all aspects needed for successful online learning,” Eriksson Waterschoot noted.

“The inequalities, unfortunately, we see they have been exacerbated, and we see that those students who may be less strong have perhaps suffered more than others.”

Additionally, the EC is planning an updated digital education action plan to be released in September 2020, she added, where commitments on pushing forward the digital capacity of education institutions and supporting online learning at all levels of education are expected.

Eriksson Waterschoot noted the budget for the next Erasmus program remains “very strong”.

Although latest proposals have criticised by student groups, Eriksson Waterschoot praised the doubling of budget in the proposals from 2018.

The European University Association has also raised concerns with the latest EC recovery plan.

“We know the negotiations are not easy, but we count on the European Council now in the next weeks to actually conclude on a budget,” she said.

“We believe with this budget we will manage to be more inclusive, greener, but also be more digital. And this is, of course, even more important now with the Covid-19 context.”

The pandemic has acted as an accelerator for digital education, she suggested.

“I think we will see more and more that the quality of online and blended learning content needs to be also looked at, [and] the quality assurance around that… We are already testing it now.

“We believe with this budget we will manage to be more inclusive, greener, but also be more digital”

“We could see very interesting progress on the more digital EU Inter University campus. And this, of course, could be [an] inspiration and a bit of a role model for other alliances or networks.

“So for this, we hope that Europe’s universities can be a kind of testbed for universities of the future, but also how European universities can be a test of the resilience needed now in the recovery phase,” Eriksson Waterschoot said.

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