BM83: Resolution on the financing of the European Universities alliances

25.11.2022
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The topic of funding for European Universities has been present since the results of the first call in 2019. In fact, the first two calls (2019, 2020) funded the alliances with 5 million euros each for a three-year period, while in the third call (2022) the support was up to 14.4 million euros per alliance for a four-year period, which have also been confirmed for the fourth call (2023). The research dimension of the alliances has been supported via Horizon Europe. However, the alliances have so far considered insufficient both the short-term project approach for what is considered a long-term, structural endeavour and the amount of money invested compared to the ambitious policy target indicated by the Commission. This has led several alliances to consider looking for external, private funds and for most Member States to give financial support to their national Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) involved in the alliances. According to Jongbloed et al. (2022), at the end of 2021, 20 Member States directly supported their HEIs members of an alliance through targeted national funding, while only 2 Higher Education systems were not giving any national funds, even indirectly. This can create issues in the different financial capacities between the members of the same alliance and create issues of policy divergence if those national funding target different goals from the other; at the same time, this can also have an impact on the cohesion of the individual HE systems. 

Effective and efficient operation of the alliances requires several factors. A fundamental one is a financial support and stability. To discover the needs of students in the European Universities, ESU has organised two consultation sessions and a survey for National Unions of Students and local representatives in the alliances. The outcome indicates that funds for students are in good condition, and student boards may work on their statutory tasks. Secondly, it was reported that student bodies need the support offered by Universities (e.g. human resources, communication etc.) and opportunities to meet with the other representatives. The student movement is dynamic, so networking, talking about good practices and sharing ideas are crucial for students’ participation in creating alliances. In order to do that, dedicated funds must be in place to allow participation regardless of personal or institutional financial condition. 

However, when discussing possible methods of long-term, sustainable funding for European Universities, it is important to analyse the profile of the Higher Education Institutions that take part in the current alliances and the degree to which they embody the ‘inclusiveness in excellence’ that is the stated goal of the European Commission. According to Bonaccorsi (2022), who studied the profile of the HEIs selected by the first two calls, institutions participating in the alliances are larger, more internationalised and with a stronger focus on research. Members of alliances have, on average, half more students than those institutions not participating and a threefold larger academic body. HEIs members of alliances have a percentage of undergraduate foreign students of 11.5% and of PhD foreign students of 28.0%, compared to 5.3% and 21.6% of institutions not-participating in alliances. Regarding research, the alliances have an average PhD intensity of 5.8%, against 2.5% of all the other HEIs. It is even more evident if the data are analysed from an absolute perspective. While the HEIs members of an alliance analysed in the study are 292, and all the others are 1024, the former have a higher number of PhD students and international students (both undergraduate and PhD) than all the latter combined. Bonaccorsi suggests that the alliances of Higher Education Institutions that were able to win the first two calls probably stemmed from previous existing collaboration networks. These were more likely based on research activities, as European support for such type of cooperation largely pre-existed the alliances and involved larger HEIs as they could have been favoured in the organisational effort of establishing an alliance. 

The previous analysis is important when discussing the financing of European Universities. In order for the alliances to be up to the tasks requested and to prevent commodification, the financial charge of supporting the project must be up to the public authorities and neither to private actors nor to the students. Therefore, we ask for sustainable and sufficient public funding for European Universities. These funds are required to avoid students being at the front line of expenses. This aligns with ESU’s long-standing position: students do not have to pay for education. As a transitory measure to free education, to avoid the students involved in the projects of the alliances paying more than their peers not participating in initiatives of the alliances, in each institution, the cap for tuition fees must be the same as those which Higher Education Institutions would apply for the rest of their students. 

Consequently, the project funding for what is requested to be a long-term, structural endeavour is not sufficient – a clear, sustainable, consequent budget from the European Commission is needed. ESU envisages two possibilities for the financing of the alliances: either a new dedicated fund or a combination of European resources covering the different policy aspects of the alliance (e.g. Erasmus+ for mobility, Horizon for research, European Social Fund+ for social dimension etc.), in order not to overburden a single, specific fund (as it could happen with the Erasmus+ programme, whose main focus should remain student mobility also financially speaking). Whether it comes from a new dedicated fund or different European programmes, students and their representative organisations need to be part of the bodies deciding or reflecting upon these funds, both at the European, national and transnational (alliances’) levels. For the student representation, co-creation and participation in the governance of the alliances to be sustainable – which is crucial for them to be student-centered – there needs to be funding in place within the alliances to financially reimburse students for their efforts in helping steer the alliances’ course of action. Only through this can they be inclusive when it comes to student representation.

Regarding the nature of such funds, the signals from the Commission seem to point towards a performance-based system, either at the national or European levels. ESU will keep paying close attention to whether and how this possibility will materialise. ESU believes that, if such structures are implemented, they need to align policy objectives between the different levels and support the improvement in structure, governance, student-centred learning, students’ rights, and avoid budget deprivation. In any case, students need to be present in the governance of the assessment of the Alliance. The involvement of democratically elected student representatives within the alliance governance should be a key evaluation criterion, stemming from clear guidelines co-created with the democratic student representation at the European level.

We also believe it is time for the Alliances to use their funds to create real content for the students. Currently, insufficient courses, mobility programs or research opportunities were put in place. We are calling for creating new opportunities for students and their careers in a logic of student-centred opportunities. Not all students within their alliances benefited from the activities promoted. Not all students within their alliances benefited from the activities promoted.

However, it is imperative to assess the effect the funding for the alliances will have on the balance and equity of the national Higher Education systems. ESU believes that a 2-speed system must be avoided, where on the one hand, HEIs members of an alliance would have sufficient funds, and on the other hand, HEIs not members of an alliance would have insufficient funds. To avoid that, an impact assessment of the general level of funding for HE systems and the impact of funding for the alliances at the national level is needed, as well as a strong commitment from the governments to invest in their HE systems as a whole, including those Higher Education Institutions that are not part of an alliance. Moreover, regarding this specific topic, we request that future calls, both for the new alliances and the expansion of the already existing ones, focus on the diversity of HEIs selected. Indeed, the more diverse they will be – in terms of geographical balance, size, speciality etc. – the less risk there is of a 2-speed system occurring. It is also important to ensure that status differences don’t emerge once some universities are part of the alliances and others are not. In times when funding for education presents constraints at the national level, national funding for the alliances could create even more budgetary constraints in financing the other Higher Education Institutions, as well as create budgetary inconsistencies between members from different countries of the same alliance. ESU believes that an honest conversation about the funding to Higher Education should take place: the funding for European Universities must come primarily from the European level, while Higher Education Institutions should be able to channel national funds for internationalisation allocated to them towards their participation in the alliances, should they wish to do so.

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