In 2017, European Union leaders called on the member states to promote strategic partnerships between higher education institutions across the EU. The aim was to bring together committed Europeans at European higher education institutions to enable them to cooperate across national borders in different languages – ultimately, to deal with major societal challenges in our world of global connections and complications that cannot be tackled by one higher education institution alone.
Currently, after three rounds of calls for proposals by the European Commission, a total of 44 Europe-wide higher education alliances, the European Universities, are implementing their concepts. In order for them to do so, they must comply with different national rules and overcome national legal and regulatory hurdles. This challenge has long been acknowledged as a key factor for preventing many higher education institutions from effectively cooperating with their counterparts in other countries, and through the establishment of the European Universities the legal and regulatory framework conditions have come even more into focus.
In the following passages I will, first, throw a spotlight on two specific areas in which European cooperation in higher education has traditionally been difficult due to diverging national administrative regulations. And second – and more importantly – I will show what the six higher education institutions of the Ulysseus network have so far been doing to enhance smooth and effective cooperation in these areas.
Towards less laborious academic recognition processes
Recognition of credits earned abroad has never been fully achieved in Europe since the Erasmus+ programme was established more than 30 years ago. Students going abroad risk having to retake courses and exams when they return. This amounts not only to both wasted time and economic loss, but also creates awareness of such risks among students and keeps many from going abroad. An assessment of the Erasmus+ programme published by the European Commission in 2017 suggests that only 80 % of higher education students receive full recognition of their academic achievements upon return to their home institution. One reason is that the systems of recognition in the two relevant countries differ from another.
With regards to this problem the Ulysseus alliance has made some real progress. Laborious recognition processes have been substantially reduced. Those remaining will become more effective by both the introduction of a set of recommendations among the Ulysseus partners, and the adoption of a mutual agreement on academic recognition to be signed by the end of 2022. Thus, the six participating higher education institutions will, for instance, be able to consider all credits stated in the transcript of records of students who participate in courses at an institution of one of the partners of the alliance as counting towards the degree of their home institution.
Creating a common digital platform
There is a big variation of digital platforms used by higher education institutions in Europe. The reasons that led to this situation are manifold: differing national data protection laws, the prevalent market power of platform providers in certain countries/regions, etc. In practical terms, this means that the ability to operate on one of these platforms does not necessarily put someone in a position to immediately be at home with the platform of another institution. Moreover, many platforms are often available in the national language(s) only, and are not accessible to students, teaching or administrative staff of other higher education institutions who would like to, for instance, learn more about the possibilities to study abroad or, respectively, explore options for international cooperation formats like joint degrees.
To avoid having to get acquainted with six separate digital platforms and to create true digital cooperation the Ulysseus Digital Platform was set up and is constantly being enhanced. It consists of several sub-platforms dedicated to different activities – management, teaching, virtual mobility, career development, etc. The platform will be accessible to every person working or studying at one of the six participating institutions. This means, to take only a single example, that students, supported by an online selection tool, will soon be able to select courses developed jointly by the alliance that fit the learning outcomes of their degree and register for it under the same conditions as a student of the institution that offers the course. The pilot phase of the platform starts in October 2022 and the long-term objectives Ulysseus wants to achieve with it are:
- to offer all jointly developed courses on only one digital platform
- to remove the requirement for a separate registration at the Ulysseus institution that offers the course
- to get rid of any other additional administrative barriers in connection with registration processes