Doing more together for the future of Europe

Written by Rolf Tarrach on 9 May 2017 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

Rolf Tarrach outlines what the future of Europe could look like from the Universities perspective.

Europe’s universities want to do much more together. This is the essence of a discussion I chaired recently between the European National Rectors’ Conferences (the national associations of universities). The debate was generated by the European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe discussing the European project after its 60 years’ anniversary and – importantly – after Brexit.

I welcome the White Paper as it stimulates debate, but it assumes that integration is only a matter for the European Union institutions. A true discussion on the future of Europe needs to take civil society into account. Europe’s civil society is not an appendage to the institutions; it is a vital, independent partner. Civil society facilitates concrete dialogue and citizen integration within the unique framework that the EU provides.

The university sector serves as a good example: universities have benefited immensely from European integration; making it possible to work together through a multilateral framework for research collaboration thanks to the research Framework Programmes and a common model for student mobility thanks to Erasmus.


However, carrying on at the present level is not sufficient: existing programmes are critically under-funded and the European Research Area European Research Area under-prioritised. This low level of ambition is not enough for the university sector. If we want an inclusive, prosperous and competitive Europe, the EUneeds to give research, education, and innovation a clear role and mission.

Universities should be able to develop their own European agenda while the institutions act as rule makers and facilitators for a bottom-up approach. We want to do much more together, but we need to be able to do so on our own terms.

Our universities do not necessarily need greater transfers of power to Europe’s institutions, but we need EU institutions that are strong enough to deliver a sustainable framework enabling us to work as truly European universities. An EU reduced to the single market would not be able to deliver this.

Concretely, the university sector needs European level structures that ensure transparency and dialogue between all stakeholders: governments, associations, and institutions; sustainable and sufficient funding for research collaboration and student mobility, as well as opportunities for capacity building for institutions and national systems and a level playing field for universities to develop their full potential and to participate in EU programmes.

These basic elements can create a strong, self-sustained, European community. It is an example of one sector, but no doubt this is not very different from many others.

Organisations such as the European University Association make it possible for professionals in different fields to meet colleagues from other countries and build communities of common interest. Last year, more than a thousand people from across the continent participated in events we organised.

These communities develop their own Europe-wide standards that consolidate the community. The European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance is one example, which is a purely stakeholder-developed document that forms a vital part of higher education systems throughout Europe.

The Salzburg Principles for doctoral education is likewise a reference document for universities and governments alike. These were articulated directly by the European doctoral education community.

Our reform of higher education, with this essential contribution of civil society, is a unique reference point globally. Countries from South America to East Asia are looking to Europe for this reason, and civil society organisations can facilitate dialogue in a way that formal diplomacy cannot do.

These are just examples of one sector, without mentioning the thousands of academic conferences, research projects, and tens of thousands of mobile students who benefit from the EU. With a solid framework from the European institutions and space for bottom-up initiatives from civil society we can do much more together for the future of Europe.

About the author

Rolf Tarrach is president of the European University Association (EUA)

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