Mixing many forms of excellence: the European Universities Initiative

Mixing many forms of excellence: the European Universities Initiative Helsinki 2019

The field of international higher education is abuzz with talk of the European Universities Initiative, but opinions differ on the best approach. How can the push towards European Universities strike a balance between the excellence of top-tier institutions on the one hand and inclusion of a wide variety of voices on the other – or is the apparent tension between these two dynamics a mere illusion? The EAIE Debate at the 31st Annual Conference and Exhibition in Helsinki discusses how we can blend Europe's diverse skillsets and perspectives to redefine our notions of what makes a university 'excellent'.

Student and staff mobility are as old as universities.

In a twelfth-century decree known as the authentica habita, the enlightened Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa established the safe passage and housing of international students and staff by making them subject to the jurisdiction of their teachers and the Bishop of Bologna. City officials in Bologna had taken to holding to ransom the compatriots of staff or students who had absconded with a debt to ensure that the outstanding rent or debt to traders would be paid. The Emperor agreed with the students and scholars that their autonomy and self-determination, and thus their cultural freedom, was an important good. The privilege ensuing from the authentica habita and the students’ cultural freedom together saw the creation of a new organisation, as distinct from the previous model of organisation in which students personally joined a teacher and paid him fees for education. This new organisation was the university.

A brief history of mobility

The simultaneous creation of the concept of the university and the safe passage of foreign scholars made mobility inextricably linked with universities. However, the right to mobility that was assured during the birth of universities was later taken away during the time that nation-states were being formed. In more recent times, mobility is gaining ground again. Indeed, we have now arrived at a period of supranationally encouraged and funded mobility and collaboration arrangements.

Erasmus and programmes like it can help drive greater collaboration and mutual understanding. Indeed, some of the newer activities that have come about in Erasmus+ also provide interesting opportunities to allow diverse groups to innovate in education. In many institutes of higher education, mobility beyond what is available through the Erasmus scheme is, however, limited. The danger therefore is that if such funding is no longer available, mobility may decrease. The upcoming Brexit, despite UK government promises, might make for an interesting case study.

Leveraging diversity

This blog post is based upon two assumptions:

  • A group of one million people from any geographic region in the world has the same brain power as another million people anywhere else in the world; what separates one group from another is the opportunity to learn (hence the UN SDG 4);
  • Leveraging cognitive diversity enhances the ability of collaborating groups to solve problems.

Many aspects of the European Universities Initiative (EUI) are presently being debated; indeed, they are the subject of a debate during this year’s EAIE Conference in Helsinki. Some have expressed concern over the balance between inclusion and excellence, the concern being that inclusivity and excellence do not necessarily go together.

I, however, believe that inclusion and excellence can go hand in hand – it all depends on what type of ‘excellence’ we are aiming for. Individual excellence, excellence by some proxy (eg ranking), research excellence, or excellence in teaching? Could we define a type of excellence concerned with collaboration to solve problems? How could a programme delivered by partners in a consortium be more ‘excellent’ than a similar programme delivered at one university?

Delivering new forms of excellence

European experiments have long attempted to create programmes that leverage many forms of diversity to collaboratively solve problems, generally in the form of commitments to small consortia with limited reach. The EUI is an extension of this spirit, and promotes a more institutional approach.

The currently-selected pilot consortia offer a plethora of opportunities to look at, and possibly define, these emergent forms of excellence. The selected participants in the EUI herald from 25 countries of the EU/EER region, with only four EU member states not represented. In terms of geographic diversity, this certainly already offers a considerable spread. In terms of disciplinary representation, there is also substantial coverage. The notion that these pilots would only include the usual research-intensive institutions has been waylaid by what we see today: a variety of institutions have been brought together, based on a broad range of themes.

This approach mirrors what is taking place in many places around the world, where institutions are taking stock of their international relations. Whilst not exactly throwing relationships aside, there is a drive to focus more energy on what is often termed ‘strategic relationships’, numbering from just a few to a dozen or so institutions. In a way, the EUI and its funding mechanism causes a similar focus of energy and elevates partners in a consortium to relating in a strategic way.

The current geographic spread of consortia in the EUI rests upon both assumptions elaborated above. The nature of the consortia has created a great experiment to see which other diversities might be useful to deliver newer forms of excellence. Whether these collaborations supply the cognitive diversity required to deliver a ‘diversity bonus’ – in other words, whether the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts – depends very much on their context and the relevance of the diversity brought together in relation to what issues they will tackle. For example, to what extent does geographic diversity contribute to cognitive diversity? What can be done with disciplinary diversity to arrive at a better solution for a challenge at hand? I certainly will follow the answers to these questions and the outcomes of this experiment with great interest.

Robert Coelen
NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, the NetherlandsDr Robert Coelen is Professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education and part of the Research Group Innovation in Education and Research at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.