Following the announcement of the second call of the European Universities Initiative on 5 November 2019, the European Commission organized a kick-off event for interested parties on 7 November 2019. Under the motto of “Building the Universities of the Future”, more than 800 stakeholders in higher education assembled in Brussels to discuss this ambitious and trailblazing initiative of the European Union.

The event was opened by Director-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, Themis Christophidou, who emphasized the important role the European Universities Initiative plays in realizing a European Higher Education Area by 2025. European Universities aim to strengthen the mobility of students and staff, and foster the quality, inclusiveness and competitiveness of European higher education. These transnational networks of universities will contribute to the fortification of the knowledge triangle by not only sharing knowledge and infrastructure but also by exchanging data and research across EU Member States. By combining both online as well as physical learning will facilitate the creation of a European community for continuous learning that motivates and supports adults in finding their way back to education for up-skilling and re-skilling. The selected 17 pioneer European Universities have a total budget of up to €85 million available to help them achieve this goal. Nevertheless, the Director-General didn’t refrain from pointing out that a lot of efforts still need to be made in order for the Initiative to reach its full potential, including additional investments by national governments and synergies between several European funding instruments such as Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe.

The opening statement was followed by a presentation from representatives from DG EAC and DG EACEA, who gave some insights into the application process and explained what made the 17 European Universities that got selected in the first call stand out among the 54 alliances that applied. It was concluded that factors including the geographical balance, the social diversity, the involvement of the students and staff, the relevance and sustainability of the mission statement, as well as the ambition and creativity of the proposal determined the successful outcome of the application. Subsequently, representatives from accepted alliances presented their vision on the application process as well as some advice to prospective candidates.

The succeeding panels laid bare both the many advantages of the Initiative as well as the bottlenecks that still need to be addressed. The optimists in the room celebrated the 50% mobility target the alliances need to adhere to, while the critics questioned how such a target can be identified with the climate neutral economy that the Von der Leyen Commission is aiming for. Moreover, the former focused on the Initiative’s potential to transform the EU into a global knowledge hub, while the latter emphasized that this dream can only become a reality if more education competences are shifted from national to European level. Lastly, the question was raised how the Initiative can respond to important and sensitive topics such as the inclusion of British universities after Brexit and of interested universities from Candidate Countries, the removal of bureaucratic regulations on a national level and pressing need for increased funding on all fronts.

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