27 Jun 2017

The rise of European education networks

In 2016 not one, but two new university community networks with a focus on Europe emerged, with both stating that they have a new role to play in the European education landscape; namely, The Guild of European Research Intensive Universities (referred to as The Guild) and Aurora. To put this in context, in the last few years, there has been no other comprehensive European university networks created. Considering this, does the European Higher Education landscape actually need more Education Networks, considering the dearth that already exists? Read on to decide.

 
Categorically yes, there are a great number of benefits to a university being a member of such networks, and considering how notoriously difficult it is to join one of the longer established groups, such as LERU and Coimbra, then new networks such as these, will hopefully open the door for research intensive universities to work together in a strategic way. More broadly, such networks enable universities to develop new, as well as strengthen existing collaborative relationships with fellow members in various countries. In a post-Brexit UK, the role of such networks for universities to reinforce collaborative relationships appears increasingly important, so that UK universities can continue to further participate in strategic European partnerships for research and education.
 

Solving the world’s most pressing social concerns

 
The Guild, created in June 2016, consists of 16 European universities with the main aim of lobbying in Europe to ensure that the next European framework programme for research and innovation (known as FP9) beginning in 2021 is robust and is one which “enables all disciplinary perspectives to contribute appropriately to solving our [The Guilds] most pressing societal concerns worldwide”. It will also represent its members’ best interests in Europe, by acting as a “ ‘go-to’ alliance, which informs EU policy-makers and national governments on key issues of funding, capacity, opportunity and policy”. Judging by these statements, on the face of it, The Guild and their strong message on lobbying the European Union, should be a network which is welcomed in the current climate. Surely another group, with the potential to counter possible strategic isolation around policy, and hopefully influence the research agenda of the next Framework Programme, is a group which should be welcomed.
 
A second European network, called ‘Aurora’, was launched in October 2016. The Aurora university network consists of nine European, high-quality, research intensive universities whose aim is to work together to “influence policy in globally significant areas where we are world leading”. Judging by recent social media activity, the network recently held a workshop, hosted by the University Grenoble Alpes for all members, to explore areas where they can work together, such as in research collaboration, sharing best practices, and also boosting innovation and entrepreneurship,  suggesting that research collaboration is a key priority for Aurora. Again, another network with an ability to lobby in Europe to ensure FP9 and universities can deliver “research that provides solutions to societal issues–locally, nationally and internationally”.
 

Post-Brexit advantages

 
Clearly lobbying in Europe is not the only reason to establish or join such a network, the benefits are multiple and there are a number of core areas where membership of such a network has proved extremely fruitful, in particular when it comes to winning funding for large research collaborative projects. Both new groups were conceived prior to the Brexit referendum and are not a reaction to the UK leaving the European Union, yet undoubtedly, post-Brexit, the advantages to being a member of such a network are now amplified. Considering the future, and whether the UK can or cannot bid for European Research Council grants, then at least one benefit for UK universities being in a network, is the ability to somehow join consortium research bids with institutions in the European Union.
 
No member of any of these networks have an exclusive approach to internationalisation. They will continue to collaborate on a bi-lateral basis with hundreds of other institutions.  These groups do not necessarily represent exclusivity in reality, but do enable them to attempt to create a ‘brand’ which hopefully reaps rewards for all its member.
 
Garret Maher is Assistant Head of International Partnerships at the University of Exeter. 

  • Kees Kouwenaar

    Thank you Gareth, for highlighting the start of the Aurora Universities Network as one of the new networks that the European Higher Education Area has seen. Allow me a few comments and observations on your blog.
    “Influencing policy” is important for Aurora, but it is not the primary reason for starting Aurora. The driving motive for the nine universities in Aurora is to show – ourselves and the world – that world class research are not at odds with a high level of societal engagement of both research and education. Too often, world class records in field weighted citations scores are seen as an alibi for an exclusive focus on academic excellence. Too often, strength in problem-focused research and a focus on inclusion of less-represented groups in university education throw doubts about academic top quality.
    Aurora is a platform where its members can learn from and with each other how to excel in connecting academic excellence with societal relevance. One learns from sharing ones doubts and weaknesses, not from showcasing ones embellished best practices. That is why Aurora chooses to be an intimate network of like-minded, not-competing universities.
    Kees Kouwenaar, head of the Aurora office and senior advisor international strategy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam