University alliances come under the research microscope

As a new organisational entity, the European Universities Initiative (EUI), proposed in 2017 to support the internationalisation of European higher education via the establishment of European university alliances committed to deep long-term cooperation, is proving to be a productive source of innovative new research for higher education and other researchers.

recent study by University of Oslo-based higher education specialists Peter Maassen, Bjørn Stensaker and Arianna Rosso titled “The European university alliances – An examination of organizational potentials and perils” published in the journal Higher Education suggests that the programme may represent “an attempt to find an organisational solution to the European policy ambitions in higher education, research and innovation”.

Maassen et al present a framework for analysing the alliances based on qualitative interviews with representatives of 10 European university alliances and analyse the potential gains and perils alliances might face along four dimensions: their internal coordination, their ways of resolving conflicts, the commitment of member universities and the cultural characteristics of the alliances.

The study finds that there are indications of the long-term persistence of the alliances and potential for the EUI, as a new ‘(meta-)organisational form’ to become institutionalised in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

In its ‘closing reflections’ the study said more in-depth analysis of the cultural characteristics and identity of the new alliances could shed light on how the landscape of higher education in Europe is affected by the EUI.

In particular, the authors ask if the alliances will expand their agenda and scope over time.

They also suggest that as meta-organisations they may seek larger strategic partnerships with similar types of alliances and may gain importance over time.

“The fact that the EC [European Commission] currently is signalling more economic support for larger alliances could provide a strong incentive for inter-alliance mergers. The potential emergence of large alliances of universities might also have implications with respect to power and authority within the [EHEA],” the authors say.

They add that internal governance of university alliances is also worth pursuing in future studies.

“How university alliances are able to organise and use their work and activities in ways that facilitate knowledge transmission, learning and innovation within the partnership is here of particular interest, as learning and innovation are key reasons why many universities decide to enter alliances,” they say.

Significant updates

Daniel Apollon, associate professor of digital culture at the University of Bergen in Norway, who for two decades has been an expert for the European Commission in respect of higher education capacity building and digitalisation issues, said the EUI is not only about European collaboration and the stimulation of student mobility in higher education but is also aimed at reviving and actualising aspects of the Bologna Process, with some significant updates to the original priorities and context.

Apollon underlined how the EUI also links up with the ‘digital transformation’ agenda of the European Commission.

Apollon said it was important to grasp that the “subtending ideology or model” for the EUI is corporate digital transformation.

He said the message coming from the European Commission to higher education institutions is that universities have tended to operate with outdated ‘digitalisation’ of existing structures and forms of cooperation, and that the EUI initiative is a key means to stimulate the structural, institutional, organisational and cultural transformation of universities.

Rhizomatic analysis

Other researchers in higher education undertaking empirical studies of EUI alliances include Antonin Charret and Maia Chankseliani from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who published a study in Higher Education in August titled “The process of building European university alliances: A rhizomatic analysis of the European Universities Initiative”.

Analysing the EUI processes based on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and focusing on three alliances, Charret and Chankseliani apply a rhizomatic analysis and conclude that alliances rely heavily on pre-existing higher education and research partnerships while at the same time are experimenting to foster a diversity of institutional forms to achieve the goal of creating European universities.

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