Coimbra Group Webinar

“The future of the European Universities Initiative at European level after 2023: the differing perspectives on sustainability”

Wednesday 10th June 2020, 2.30pm

Good afternoon,

It’s a pleasure to be here with you. I hope everyone is well.

Patrick Prendergast is my name, and I’m President and Provost of Trinity College Dublin. I hold a number of other positions that are relevant here: member of the Governing Board of EIT since 20121, President of the engineering programme UNITECH2, and Chair of Science Gallery International3.

I want to talk about the viability and sustainability of the European Universities Alliances, with particular reference to the alliance that my university is involved in: CHARM-EU.

The European Universities Alliances has the potential to be as pioneering as Erasmus and the Framework programmes in terms of spearheading pan-European higher education, research and innovation. We want to get students, professors and entrepreneurs moving around regions in Europe to work, research and study, as easily as they do around the US, for instance. But that won’t happen automatically - it needs visionary and enabling initiatives. I believe the European Universities Alliance is such an initiative.

I was very keen for Trinity to be involved in this, so I was delighted, last summer, when CHARM-EU was chosen as one of the 17 inaugural European University alliances.

As you can see from the logo here, CHARM-EU stands for Challenge-driven, Accessible, Research-based, Mobile European University.

It’s an alliance of five universities - Trinity College Dublin and the universities of Barcelona, Montpellier, Utrecht, and Eotvos Lorand (ELTE) in Budapest – and we have Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences as an associate partner, as well as with several other companies, agencies and networks, as given on the slide.  

‘Challenge-driven’ is a concept we’re familiar with for research, but less so for education. The aim is to put students in the driving seat of their own learning – and to solve challenges rather than to work in disciplines.

The broad area of challenge addressed by CHARM-EU is ‘to reconcile humanity and the planet’.

That’s large-scale and interdisciplinary, as befits challenge-driven education and research. Think of Covid19 – addressing a pandemic is a medical challenge, obviously, but it’s also a political, economic, financial, mental health, and social behaviour challenge.

In the 21st century, can we educate students to be challenge-centred? How might they address the challenge of ‘reconciling humanity and the planet’? Our expectation is that they will look at options across the participating universities and select, for themselves, relevant programmes and modules.

From Trinity, they might choose a module in our new Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies Institute. From Utrecht, they might take a module in marine science; from Barcelona, a programme in sociology, and so on.

The idea is for students to create bespoke curricula for themselves. Their goal is not to know everything about one discipline but to learn to use many disciplines to solve issues confronting humanity and the planet.

CHARM-EU is innovative on a number of levels. Firstly, we’re setting questions around education and skills:

  • Can challenge-driven education work?
  • Can students and professors move beyond a disciplinary approach?
  • Are professors willing to deliver this, and
  • Are employers ready to take on the graduates?

Secondly, we’re setting questions around partnership and collaboration:

  • Can European universities work together as a single institution, and can it be enabled by new modes of governance?
  • Can we cross barriers of different cultures and regulations to successfully deliver an innovative and relevant curriculum?

All 17 European University Alliances are addressing issues of partnership and collaboration, and for the Alliances to be sustained, the answers to these questions must be yes.

These are early days yet. At this pilot stage of the project, we’re looking to establish viability and sustainability. CHARM-EU has organised around nine work packages, led by the University of Barcelona.

The core activities of these work packages are:

  • The creation
    • of an innovative governance and management model, and
    • of a curriculum which addresses the ambition of reconciling humanity and the planet, and
      • which incorporates transdisciplinarity, challenge-based learning, student mobility and inclusivity.

The key outputs we’re hoping from the work packages, are:

  • A good working governance and management model;
  • A Toolkit that will share the resources and artefacts of the project among current and future European University Alliances;
  • Materials and content for a Masters’ degree that will run from 2021, involving all CHARM-EU universities.

We will complete the work packages in three years’ time, 2023. They will help us determine the viability and sustainability of CHARM-EU and the European University Alliances.
We, the participating universities, believe in the relevance and importance of challenge-driven education, and in collaborating to deliver our mission to reconcile humanity and the planet.

We’re staking out our belief that this approach is the way forward for 21st century education. The onus is on us to create a high-level, well-organised initiative. But we need to do this in tandem with students and employers.

We’re trying something new here: we’re giving students greater autonomy in building their curricula and we’re asking employers to trial a new approach to education and skills. We will best succeed if we involve all partners from the start and if we remain student- and employer-centred.

Focusing on relevance and attractiveness will also secure financial viability. I recognise higher education as both a public good and a private good, so my preference is for students to pay for the CHARM-EU Masters, underpinned by national or EU support. Our experience, in Trinity, is that if the programme is sufficiently attractive, students will make the investment. The stand-out example is our joint BA with Columbia University in New York. Participating students pay high US fees for two years of the programme. But demand from EU students can’t keep up with supply. Students will pay for quality. Can we place a high value on CHARM-EU?

I think we can, and I think doing so will force us to face issues of financial sustainability. However, I understand people’s concerns around tuition fees and I applaud strong state investment in higher education. So whether it’s the participating countries and the EU that bear costs, or the students themselves, my remit remains the same: financial sustainability derives from quality and relevance. States and students should only invest in excellence.

If we can build something that students and employers want to invest in, this will help build momentum and impetus around the creation of a European Education Area.

Let me close with some thoughts about the European Education Area. To date, this has been more aspiration than active policy. We’ve made significant advances with the European Research Area, through Horizon2020 and the ERC, but when it comes to enrolling students, designing curricula and conferring degrees, there have been no significant pan-European advances since Erasmus.

It will take political will to create a European Education Area because higher education in Europe remains the remit of national governments. For CHARM-EU, for instance, we’d like all participating universities to jointly confer the Masters degree, but not all the universities have the mandate to do this.

We need national governments to be flexible and creative. But universities can push for this, and the European Universities Alliances presents a unique opportunity. It provides a structured framework, incentivised and supported by the European Commission, for universities to demonstrate that we can successfully innovate and collaborate to deliver transformative, pan-European education.

Universities should seize the opportunity. Let me finish by quoting our great Trinity graduate, Samuel Beckett: “Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed.”

Thank you.

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