The European University Foundation (EUF) is an invitation-based network of 22 universities. UZH became a full member of the network in December 2019. To what do we owe this honor?
João Bacelar: The University of Zurich outstanding reputation and expertise means it is a perfect fit relative to the profile of the EUF members, which are very active when it comes to student mobility. In addition to being Switzerland’s largest university, UZH also stands for the same values that the EUF does, not least with regards to internationalisation. When the university’s leaders signalled their interest in cooperating, we very quickly decided to move ahead.
Did the addition of a financially attractive partner in Switzerland play a role in this decision?
Not at all. The reason why we invited UZH to join didn’t have anything to do with money. The reasons were the university’s performance, brainpower and expertise. Incidentally, membership fees only account for 4% of the EUF budget, whereas the larger part is funded through European cooperation projects. Thanks to UZH, we now have a new partner with whom we can advance ground-breaking initiatives together. During this visit, I would like to flesh out the details of our strategic cooperation and identify key challenges we aim to tackle jointly.
Which areas is the foundation active in, and what makes up the EUF’s DNA?
The focus of the EUF is on modernizing the European Higher Education Area, oftentimes looking at how mobility and international cooperation can help accelerate such transformation processes. All our activities revolve around those focal points, which are further structured into five pillars: policy innovation, active citizenship, quality mobility, digitisation and university-business cooperation.
Why is student mobility important?
Mobility, or international experience, is not an end in itself, it’s not just about the number of incoming and outgoing students. It’s about the impact those students have in the societies they are part of, both on the short and long term. Research shows that students who have gone abroad during their studies are more engaged citizens, they’re more tolerant, open and participative. In brief, in the long run student mobility positively changes the fabric of society.
Is your vision a collective European campus?
As a matter of fact, the EUF started out with a political goal: To contribute to bring Europe closer together. Student mobility is an important catalyst to this goal, and it has increased greatly in the past 30 or 40 years. But there’s still plenty more to achieve from which we could all benefit. This becomes apparent when we look at Switzerland, in particular: Your country has one of the most international academic communities in the world, and that’s one of the reasons why Swiss universities are so successful. So, some of those ideas do speak to the notion of a truly borderless higher education ecosystem.
How does student mobility differ among European countries?
There are very significant differences, and the landscape remains dynamic. For example, Nordic countries have historically fared well in this measure, but these trends are currently evolving. Another cluster of countries that has historically been in the forefront of achieving high mobility rate is the Benelux, and particularly Luxembourg, where our foundation is headquartered.
Why is the student mobility rate so high in Luxembourg?
This has to do with the fact that at the University of Luxembourg, studying abroad is a mandatory part of the curriculum of first cycle studies. But if you look at European history, we have a centuries-old, long-established tradition of scholarly mobility. This is sometimes forgotten when we discuss the current political context of the Erasmus program.
While we’re on the subject: Switzerland has not been a part of Erasmus, the EU program for education, since 2014, and has acted in its third-country status since then. Can the EUF help in reconnecting Switzerland to Erasmus?
One of the main reasons for my visit to UZH was to find answers to these questions. We’ve only just begun talking and still have to clarify our mutual needs. In principle, the EUF cooperates closely with European institutions and searches for ways to have mobility and exchange programs with as few limitations as possible - and if UZH feels that a close participation in the programme is indeed desirable we will certainly look to contribute to make this possible.
Could you be more specific?
Full participation of Switzerland in Erasmus is a political question, and one in which we won’t interfere. But we support the University of Zurich in its internationalisation strategies. That means we may have to develop various scenarios for facilitating participation and cooperation that reflect UZH’s interests as far as possible. The aim should be to achieve the highest possible exchange of ideas, students and staff.
Would this make the EUF a sort of metaphorical Trojan horse for UZH to gain access to the Erasmus program?
The metaphor isn’t entirely out of place, I would say the answer is a conditional “yes”. We’re aware of the limitations resulting from the political process, but between saying “yes” or “no” to Erasmus, there is some scope to develop technical solutions that mitigate the negative effects of non-participation. For example, there are technologies that we use for the organizational and administrative tasks relating to student mobility that can maybe be extended to parties that aren’t in the Erasmus program.
You’re referring to the EUF’s Erasmus without Paper project, access to which would be extremely important for UZH.
Exactly. In the digital age, conventional national borders make less and less sense, and technological barriers and infrastructure are replacing physical borders. The Erasmus without Paper initiative came into being when several EUF universities joined forces to develop a key innovation for the next generation of exchange programmes, removing obstacles by facilitating transnational digital data exchanges. When UZH became a full member of the EUF it also became part-owner of such infrastructure, and this means we are now starting to think together about its evolution.
To what extent will UZH have access to these digital tools?
We’re currently testing parts of them with UZH. But how far access can be granted is also a question of politics, and this needs to be resolved.
That can’t be an easy task?
It’s complicated, yes. The first thing that needs to be clarified is Switzerland’s relationship with the Erasmus program. If non-participation continues, we can work hand in hand to determine what can be done to reduce the disadvantages for UZH. Right now, we’re at a crucial point when it comes to Europe. In just under a few months, the follow-up program of Erasmus+ will enter into force, and that’s why it is important for me to know what UZH’s priorities are.
You mention the upcoming follow-up program to Erasmus+, whose seven-year program period starts next year. What are EUF’s goals?
The EUF has a long history of contributing for the betterment of the Erasmus programme, and as far as the next programme is concerned our main focus has been on enhancing digitalization, climate neutrality and inclusiveness. The first two topics are self-explanatory, while inclusiveness is about enabling all students to take part in mobility programs regardless of their socioeconomic background. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case today, and we must provide more support and resources to students who need them.
Do these resources need to be financial in nature?
Not only. One of the reasons why in the last years we have done so much work on digitising administrative processes is because radical efficiency gains on that front can free up time and resources for tasks which are arguably more important, such as offering more tailored support to students and staff that require it.
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