Partnership model mooted for long-term EU alliance funding

As bids are polished for the latest round of university alliance grants, debate is building over where longer-term funding should come from

January 10, 2023
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The European Union’s university alliances want to graduate from project-based funding, but the most talked-about option for long-term support would bring its own complications.

The fourth funding round for the European Universities Initiative closes on 31 January, with €384 million (£339 million) up for grabs. The grant duration, funding per alliance and total available from the Erasmus+ programme have all grown since the programme started in 2017.

Ambition for and within the alliances is high: EU ministers stated in 2021 that they should “contribute decisively” to making EU research and education “globally competitive and attractive”. But universities say piecemeal funding is stunting progress. “This is a recurring discussion in all the different alliance meetings, plus all the meetings with the [European] commission,” Ludovic Thilly, executive vice-rector at the University of Poitiers, which coordinates the EC2U alliance, told Times Higher Education.

Professor Thilly, who also chairs one of two forums representing the alliances, said the administrative burden of applying for project funding was “very much undermining” their capacity for core activities, and that unless the initiative got a longer-term alternative there was “a risk that it will just die”.

Alison Garnier-Rivers, who manages the Epicur alliance from the University of Strasbourg, chairs the other forum. She said most alliances’ strategies run for about a decade, making this a suitable length for longer-term funding. The pilot grants to each alliance were €5 million over three years, while the latest offer is €14.4 million over four, with an option to apply for two more years of funding.

The amount each member gets varies, with universities in France, Germany and elsewhere enjoying top-ups or even matched funding from national ministries. Ms Garnier-Rivers said long-term funding would need to provide about €500,000 per university, per year, enough for three or four staff per institution plus travel costs, although this would depend on what policymakers wanted to achieve.

That is the question at the heart of an ongoing discussion within the European Commission, whose directorates for research and education are both involved in shaping the initiative. While it sits more comfortably with the latter, the EU treaties and budget grant stronger policymaking and financial powers to the former – Horizon Europe has €95.5 billion versus €26.2 billion for Erasmus+.

One long-term Horizon funding model is an Institutionalised European Partnership. Designed more for industrial policy than academic exchange, it allows the commission, EU governments and private entities to pool resources, set up offices and hire staff in pursuit of a research objective, like low-carbon aviation.

“I don’t think we’d be able to say today that this is the instrument we need, but we’d definitely be open to exploring it, because it seems to offer some of the things that we’re looking for,” said Emily Palmer, secretary general of the Una Europa alliance, adding that the option was “very promising”.

As well as bolstering alliances with long-term integration of different funding sources and the hiring of shared support staff, a partnership could organise research project funding calls, encouraging organic cooperation. But while many types of university can submit a bid for EU education funding, hierarchies in research can be more pronounced.

Should alliance research money focus on supporting excellence or building capacity? The commission’s 2022 strategy for universities said its European Excellence Initiative would “improve global competitiveness of European universities”, but a €54 million call for that initiative which opened on 10 January is aimed at EU “widening” countries, which lag on research.

It is unlikely that the EU will want to fund all the alliances – currently 44 – in the long term. Una Europa’s Ms Palmer said the evaluation for long-term funding “should be geared towards the principles of quality, excellence and impact”. It is possible that bigger budgets might also come with more political objectives. “There is this little bit of a game between how much autonomy we want and being able to respond to the calls and the different requests from the commission,” said Epicur’s Ms Garnier-Rivers.

In the months ahead, the European Research Area’s forum for governments and organisations will look at the strategising and other research and innovation work that alliances did with the €2 million some won from Horizon 2020, the predecessor scheme to Horizon Europe. Officials have also tasked the Centre for Strategy & Evaluation Services, a private consultancy, with analysing the impact of Horizon funding on alliances, with a report due later this year.


Print headline: EU alliances look for long-term security

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