European university alliances ‘must learn to be lobbyists’

EU-sponsored groupings need to win friends and influence national deregulation to realise their ambitions, experts say

May 16, 2022
A temporary art installation with support from the Welsh Government, by Luke Jerram. Commissioned by the Eisteddfod in Llangollen. The 60m long bridge, is wrapped on both sides in a giant patchwork to reflect the crafts and cultures of Wales.
Source: iStock

European university alliances must master the art of schmoozing national politicians if they are to overcome the tangle of regulations that dog transnational cooperation in Europe, experts have said.

The 41 university groupings that have won European Union funding enjoy unusual prominence in the minds of Brussels policymakers, but the red tape that matters can be cut only by EU capitals.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Europe Universities Summit, the president of the European University Association (EUA), Michael Murphy, said political awareness was the “main value” of the alliances, compared with the myriad other continent-crossing university partnerships.

Better lobbying by the lauded alliances would allow them to shift cross-border barriers for all collaborators, such as reconciling national rules on joint staff appointments or undergraduate admissions, he told the event, held at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University.

The stringency of regulation varies across the continent, said Dorothy Kelly, vice-rector of internationalisation at the University of Granada, which is part of the Arqus alliance.

She said it was hard to reconcile “very open” and “very flexible systems based on institutional autonomy” with “very highly regulated systems, often from southern Europe”.

“That’s something where we feel the tension very clearly between national policy and the idea of a single, alliance policy,” she said. “What is a barrier for one member of the alliance becomes a barrier for the whole alliance. You can only go as far as the member who can go least far.”

Countries with the tightest rules make a likely target for multinational lobbying efforts, but that requires a joint position that does not alienate wider national sectors.

“If we collectively say these are areas we want to go into, we should be able to lobby governments to open up doors, for sure,” ’Funmi Olonisakin, vice-president of global engagement at King’s College London, part of the Circle U alliance, told THE.

“Of course, those universities that are not part of an alliance would say, ‘What the hell? Why should we do this?’ But if the principles are clear that it’s for inclusivity, it’s for global problem-solving, I don’t think any well-meaning institution would argue with those things,” she said.

“Universities as a sector should be far more engaged with national politics,” Professor Murphy told THE. Apart from changing national rules, he said, doing the “homework” of wining and dining in national capitals was the best way to steer EU policy.

He said the EUA had made the “tactical” switch of seeking to steer the EU more through its member rectors’ conferences, rather than the European Parliament or the European Commission directly.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, a lobbying network that counts many EU alliances among its members, said the commission “was clearly not going to take up the role of eliminator of national and European obstacles for transnational cooperation”. “The only one who is remaining then are the member states,” he said.

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