Much has been written about the European Universities Initiative (EUI), from the ambitious top-down targets to the challenges on the coal front to make it work. But what is it like to launch and lead the initiative within a university that is a member of one of the 44 EUI alliances?
University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland is a partner of UNIC, the European University of Post-Industrial Cities. In a novel approach, UNIC is a partnership of 10 universities and their cities, formally bound by a Memorandum of Understanding between each university and its community, underpinning intense commitment and partnership.
Cities and municipalities advise on the development of the initiative and, through the CityLabs approach, jointly design research and teaching initiatives as well as the development of solutions for central societal challenges.
This approach contributes strongly to the third mission of universities, ie civic and community engagement and impact, and places the notion of engaged research very prominently.
The concept of interdisciplinary work within a university is already challenging, let alone working across institutions in the same and different countries. All in all, however, the benefits far outweigh the challenges when academic and professional staff, students and, in UNIC’s case, city and community stakeholders work closely together towards a common goal.
The cooperation between academic and professional staff at universities is often characterized by a dynamic that sees professional staff in a supportive role for academic staff and leaves little room for innovation in the professional structures of the institution.
This initiative brought the workforce cohort to the table on an equal footing with a common focus. Academic staff have long had opportunities to network across Europe and beyond through research and teaching, but rarely have professional staff felt the need to interact with their equivalents in the same way.
This initiative has triggered a fundamental exchange of expertise and best practices and has fueled the development of new networks of professionals.
Within institutions, EUI alliances have also catalyzed the bringing together of academic staff from different disciplines who would not even have had a reason to meet or interact without this opportunity. Innovation happens when people from different and disparate disciplines come together and it is from this interface that innovation emerges.
In addition, UNIC particularly helps early-stage researchers to build networks, grow personally and professionally, and provides access to postgraduate and doctoral students.
At UCC we have developed a UNIC Academic Forum, led by the Vice President and Registrar, which brings together all academic staff from all disciplines involved in UNIC. It serves to facilitate discussion of challenges and opportunities while recognizing the role they play in making this happen for UCC.
Emphasis is now placed on including participation in such global activities in the academic doctorate process.
Then there are the students. The UNIC Student Council has ensured that students have seats on the Alliance’s decision-making bodies and provides a space for students from all 10 participating countries to come together, share their experiences and ensure UNIC is designed for and with students.
Students will be provided with a platform to express their views and set policy direction regarding the future of the European Education Area (EEA) and European Research Area (ERA).
UNIC is a platform through which students, through new mobility frameworks (Erasmus exchanges, virtual exchanges and physical and virtual workshops), gain access to European universities, gain European experiences and have the opportunity to learn about diversity and multiculturalism while enjoying the opportunity undertake to acquire European languages and experiences.
This deepens their educational experience while increasing their value and attractiveness to employers.
friendship across borders
The EUI as an opportunity hit us as the global pandemic gripped us and locked us in. It was a time of enormous stress for people, but thanks to MS Teams and Zoom platforms, new friends and colleagues from all over Europe were beamed into our homes, bedrooms and broom closets, opening an exciting and new horizon.
The positive impact of the EUI on the mental health of stakeholders should therefore not be underestimated. While we were working hard on the pilot phase, war was declared on Europe and European solidarity has never been more important than now.
How privileged we are to now have a ready-made group of friends and allies in nine member states and Turkey. In crafting our own response to the Ukraine crisis, we have learned from each other and developed programs to support scientists fleeing war.
do things differently
Ireland is a country where universities are not as well funded as elsewhere and participation in UNIC supports other successful European funding applications.
Ireland wants to be the front and center of the EEA and ERA. To do this, the government must support the participating universities. In an unprecedented way, and as a result of lobbying by Irish higher education institutions participating in EUIs, the Irish Government made financial support available to participating institutions in 2022, but it is not yet clear if support will be provided in 2023.
The value of this is clear. Governments are now watching what each other are doing and learning from each other – all catalyzed by this initiative.
UNIC has prompted us to question our approach to developing new teaching programmes, how we deliver courses, why we do things a certain way and if there might be another, more effective way of doing it.
We quickly realize that many of the bottlenecks are within our own control and that we can make decisions internally to do things differently to have a greater impact.
A European future
European universities are at the forefront of European and international policy changes in higher education and can access significant funding for research and education (€1.1 billion – equivalent to $1.14 billion – by 2027 under Erasmus+ alone).
UNIC offers a partnership for urban sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and civic and community engagement.
Further opportunities arise from the recently announced EU mission for 100 carbon neutral and smart cities by 2030. Out of the 10 UNIC partner cities, six have been selected for this programme: Cork, Malmö, Rotterdam, Lodz, Zagreb and Istanbul.
Through UNIC, we offer UCC students and staff a European experience and offer a value proposition for attracting international (non-EU) students. As a member of UNIC, UCC is well positioned in the post-Brexit era to celebrate Ireland’s 50th year of membership of the EU in 2023 and to inform European politics and raise Ireland’s profile on the European stage.
dr Jean van Sinderen-Law is Deputy Vice-President, Director of European Relations and Public Affairs and Director of UNIC UCC, European University of Post-Industrial Cities at University College Cork, Ireland.