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LONDON – UK universities are pushing to stay fully involved in a flagship EU program to bring higher education institutions together.

As Brussels grapples with the future of educational cooperation on the continent, UK institutions fear losing both the funding and the vital academic ties they derive from the European Universities Initiative (UIE).

The initiative has funded 41 alliances from up to 11 universities, working to develop joint research programs and activities, share ideas on issues such as sustainability and equality on campus, and promote student and staff mobility.

At least seven UK institutions became full members of alliances before the end of the Brexit transition period in December, and many more joined as associate partners.

But Britain’s decision to leave the EU’s larger Erasmus + mobility scheme, through which the UIE is funded, means they may no longer be able to bid for EU funding. EU to cover the costs of their participation.

“We want to be involved, fully engaged, ideally as a full partner,” said Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex. “But if that is not legally possible, then as an associate partner, play as full a role as possible.”

His institution is involved in the YUFE alliance, with partners in countries such as Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

‘Closer and deeper’

EU countries are currently debating the next phase of cooperation in education, which could affect the participation of third countries, including the UK and Switzerland, in UIE as well as ‘other parts of Erasmus +.

Still in a development phase, the UIE is part of the plans to build a so-called European Education Area, and should receive substantial funding once its pilot project is completed in 2023. The aim is to develop around 20 “European universities” in 2024: networks of universities allowing students to obtain a degree by studying in several EU countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron laid the groundwork in a speech in 2017, when he proposed the creation of a “network of universities across Europe with programs that allow all their students to study at the foreigner and take courses in at least two languages ​​”. He said these alliances should offer “real European semesters and real European degrees”.

A draft document prepared by the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU, dated January 21 and seen by POLITICO, indicates that EU ministers want the Commission to encourage “increasingly deeper” cross-border cooperation between universities and uses Erasmus + to stimulate further mobility. They also want the Commission to find ways to help people involved in UIE alliances to award joint degrees.

But the document does not mention the participation of third countries. Clarity could come this spring, when the Commission is expected to detail which parts of Erasmus + will be open to third countries, including the UK

Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European Association of Universities, which represents universities including in the UK, said the EU needs to clarify the objective of UIE and take a decision on third countries.

“Is this a program that contributes to European political integration, so that universities help to build Europe, or does it use European resources to improve quality in universities? If it’s the latter, I think there’s no reason why countries like UK and Switzerland can’t [be involved]. It comes down to a very political question, ”he said.

British universities say that in the worst case scenario, they will move from full members to associate partners in alliances, diminishing their influence and forcing them to contribute their own money at a time when, according to Forster, all UK universities have been affected by the pandemic and “operate under difficult financial conditions”.

“I hope we can replace all funding, but it’s not just about replacing direct Commission support for the European Universities Initiative Project. British universities have also lost access to all Erasmus + funding, ”he added.

World vs. European

UK university leaders are pressuring both the Commission and the UK government as they attempt to ensure continued access to public funding for these activities.

Some of the people interviewed for this article argued that Whitehall had so far shown indifference to their future participation in UIE and did not appear to have the bandwidth to resolve the issue.

They fear that UK ministers may see their lobbying as an attempt to prioritize Europe over the rest of the world, but argue that participating in EU-funded alliances is a vital part of their international strategies, and believe it matches the UK post. -Agenda Brexit “Global Britain”.

“We have many partnerships around the world, but what is different about our alliance of European universities YUFE is the breadth and depth of the relationship we are trying to build with regards to student mobility and staff, joint programs, sharing of best practices and strategic alignment, ”said Forster.

Seán Hand, deputy vice-chancellor of the British University of Warwick, said the government “has had little opportunity to focus on the complexities and specifics” of this issue. His institution is a full member of the EUTOPIA alliance, involving six other universities.

“I have to say that sometimes it feels like someone anonymous responded to the request for political clarification by removing the word ‘European’ from a document and simply replacing it with the word ‘global'” , did he declare.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education did not respond to these claims, but said the government “is seeking clarification from the European Commission on projects that UK institutions may be eligible to participate in in the future” .

A Commission spokesperson said it “deeply regrets” the UK government’s decision not to join the Erasmus + program after Brexit, adding that it remains “open and ready to negotiate any future demand” in this regard. meaning.

Hand said alliances are vital in preventing universities from developing “an isolationist perspective” on research and education. “Warwick never saw the initiative as a question of money or access,” he said. “It would be a shame and a loss for everyone if our campus were to become less international and less cosmopolitan.”

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