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The future of European universities: Collaboration and mobility are key

January 26, 2022

By Zoë Genova, Federica Rosetta

Elsevier EuroDoc webinar

EU universities are forming alliances to boost research opportunities, trans-national collaboration and the quality and competitiveness of European higher education. In Elsevier’s recent webinar with Eurodoc, experts talk about new developments in European higher education. Read about it and watch the webinar below.

Change is coming for Europe’s universities. A raft of ambitious European Union (EU) initiatives will usher in a period of transformation for institutions across the EU, and with it a more interconnected, open, inclusive and digital research ecosystem.

Through the European Universities Initiativeopens in new tab/window, European University Alliances are pioneering changes that will transform higher education of the future. On the research front, networks and alliances give space to experiment with academic cooperation to collectively tackle grand challenges.

Ultimately, collaboration and mobility of students and researchers across universities will be key to boost innovation, diversity and competitiveness, positioning academic organizations as key stakeholders in support of this EU strategy for sustainable growth.

So what does this mean for researchers and institutions, and what steps should they take to succeed in this evolving landscape?

Photograph of Maryline Fiaschi

Maryline Fiaschi

Elsevier’s recent webinaropens in new tab/window with Eurodocopens in new tab/window shows how networks and European alliances are forging these transformations, why collaboration and mobility are beneficial for universities and researchers, how sustainability comes into play, and what this means for researchers. The webinar was moderated by Maryline Fiaschiopens in new tab/window, CEO of Science|Businessopens in new tab/window.

European Commission’s university initiatives focus on a stronger, greener Europe

The European Universities Initiative was created to "boost excellence and competitiveness in higher education, research and innovation while promoting gender equality, inclusiveness and equityopens in new tab/window." Now, they are piloting a program of European University Alliances — transnational collaborations designed to cooperate across languages, borders, curricula and disciplines to address societal challenges and skills shortages in the region. The 42 alliances are in a pilot phase, with the EU due to review the first wave of 17 alliances involving 114 higher education institutions from 24 member states in the coming months.

Photograph of Dominik Sobczak

Dominik Sobczak

Dominik Sobczakopens in new tab/window, Deputy Head of Unit for DG Research & Innovation at the European Commission, focused on how EU universities fit in with the Commission’s work toward a stronger, greener Europe. Dominik stressed that the European University Alliances are a productive form of cooperation for universities and will promote synergies between education and research. Through this pilot, he said, universities will grow together and develop higher levels of research and education quality. The pilot will also help determine how to go forward with Horizon Europeopens in new tab/window.

Dominik also talked about the work the European Commission has been carrying out to release a Pan-European Strategy for Universitiesopens in new tab/window to enable Europe’s higher education system to be even more interconnected, inclusive, digital and sustainable. Global health and climate change initiatives, as laid out by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)opens in new tab/window, will drive students and researchers to gain new skills and foster exchanges between academia and business. This strategy aims to add a new dimension to the concept of what a university can be and to remove existing obstacles to cross-border cooperation. Dominik said that addressing the mismatch between the skills and competencies researchers require and what’s necessary for their career development in the broader scope of the economy will lead to better mobility across the academic and business sectors.

Data on mobility, collaboration and sustainability across networks

To demonstrate the value of academic cooperation, Elsevier’s data on mobility, collaboration and sustainability were introduced ahead of the discussion.

Insights gleaned from Elsevier’s Science-Metrix, Scopus and SciVal show that ‘transitory’ researchers have a higher research impact, on average, than ‘non-transitory’ researchers. This kind of information is not only invaluable for policy and decision making, it is also important for researchers to know as they plan their career paths.

By using affiliations to identify researchers across institutions and countries, it’s possible to monitor their mobility and impact over time. Findings from Elsevier’s 2021 report Data and Insights on International Science, Technology, and Innovation — Comparative Research Report of 20 Global Cities (2016-2020) show that:

  • The vast majority (~80%) of students or young researchers who have authored at least one publication end up leaving academia after a few years. Individuals who are mobile during their early training years are much more likely to stay in research: 1/3 of all researchers who are still active 15 years after their first publication moved between countries at least once.

  • In 12 out of 20 cities, transitory researchers had a higher impact and were more highly cited (20% to 60% more depending on the indicator).

  • Mobility generated citations and showed an increase in input metrics after the first mobility event.

  • Northern and Western EU members ranked highest in mobility, and Eastern EU ranked lowest, showing little migration. However, Eastern Europeans benefited the most from international mobility in terms of impact.

This data indicates that it’s important to create interventions and policies that level the playing field for research and mobility. Networks and alliances can improve access to mobility opportunities across Europe. Also, given that data shows that students who are mobile during their early training years are more likely to stay in research, policies and strategies should be implemented to improve the retention of graduate and post-graduate researchers through mobility. In this respect, European University Alliances can help create a beneficial collaborative environment for researchers working across disciplines.

Mobility is also vital to fostering international collaboration — an area where the EU performs quite highly. Circle Uopens in new tab/window, for example, has a significant level of collaboration across universities, based on co-publication.

Chord diagram showing collaboration between all members of of Circle U

There is significant collaboration among all members of Circle U as shown by this chord diagram. Within the time period analysed, Université de Paris is the most intensive in terms of co-publications with other Circle U members. View the full infographicopens in new tab/window.

Data in Scopus shows the Relative Activity Index to be high for Circle U in relation to the SDGs, meaning that a high share of their institutions’ scientific production relates to this area. (Relative Activity Index is a measure of the proportion of the country’s research output in a subject relative to the proportion seen globally.) For 15 out of 16 SDGs, Circle U has a higher impact than the EU and the world as a whole. This kind of data analysis presents an opportunity to monitor networks and alliances together to see how they can capitalize on specific topics’ strengths to advance sustainability and allow them to reflect on their role an enablers.

Circle diagrams showing Circle U's  Relative Activity Index  and Relative Research Impact Index for the 16 SDGs compared to those of the EU and and the world as a whole

Circle U’s Relative Activity Index is high in relation to the SDGs. Relative Activity Index is a measure of the proportion of the country’s research output in the subject relative to the proportion seen globally.

Academic perspectives

Prof Svein Stølenopens in new tab/window, Rector of the University of Osloopens in new tab/window, Vice Chair of the Guild and Chair of the Circle U alliance, provided insights into how collaboration across disciplines and borders helps further develop Europe as a strong continent. On the future of collaboration in Europe, he said:

I think we need to be at service to society at large, regionally, nationally and globally. I think that all the other universities in Europe will continue to seek strategic partnerships, fields of education, and research, but also strong collaboration of stakeholders externally.

Portrait photo of Professor Svein Stølen

Prof Svein Stølen, PhD

Universities play a central role in spreading excellence and engaging in collaboration. On universities working to deliver the SDGs and Europe’s Green Deal, Svein spoke of the value of interdisciplinary knowledge and collaboration at the university level in response to the pandemic. To work together to tackle the this challenge globally, he said, it has been imperative to tap into alliances in Europe and more broadly.

Prof Stefano Ronchiopens in new tab/window, Rector’s Delegate for International Affairs at Politecnico di Milanoopens in new tab/window and institutional representative at IDEA Leagueopens in new tab/window, pointed out a change in the research landscape that affects institutions and researchers alike. Previously, he said, individual institutions and universities would deal with technology alone, with scientists in silos or individual labs. Today, challenges and opportunities are much more complex and have a huge impact on climate and sustainability. He said it’s crucial to form alliances like IDEA League — a strategic alliance of five leading European research universities — to merge forces to empower people in developing technology for the interest of society and the planet.

Professor Stefano Ronchi

Prof Stefano Ronchi, PhD

Alliance perspectives and visions for the future

Ensuring equal access to opportunities for early career researchers

To ensure progress, opportunities for collaboration and mobility must be made accessible to students and early career researchers throughout Europe. Danila Rijavecopens in new tab/window, PhD Candidate and Eurodoc Board Member, stressed how fostering mobility enables wide and balanced circulation of talent. For many early career researchers, mobility may be the only way to gain access to research facilities required for innovation. Mobility gives researchers the opportunity to work with experts in their fields outside of their countries of origin and disciplines, she said:

Danila Rijavec

Danila Rijavec

For most, the integration into multinational, multicultural environments typically leads to early scientific maturity and independence. Based on this, they contribute more research, more papers and more outputs.

However, for each incoming student in Eastern Europe, Danila said, there are at least two that go to Western Europe.

Table showing migratory destinations for E27 researchers

Elsevier’s data shows that Northern and Western EU regions ranked highest in terms of mobility destinations while Eastern Europe nearly always ranked lowest. Note: Cohort of 2001–2003 still publishing 15 years later.

To improve mobility to Eastern Europe, Danila posed questions for consideration: What are countries and universities doing to attract researchers and students? What kind of support are they offering? She said that even though alliances were designed to be balanced, these flows are unbalanced.

Danila suggested that alliances may also need to address the issue that arises when mobility is not possible. What can be done better now that there are more alliances and funding? Are short-term mobility and hybrid mobility solutions good alternatives as the pandemic continues? Although many think mobility is a common concept, there is still a lack of awareness of mobility opportunities for researchers and students. To raise awareness and incentivize mobility, Danila recommended strengthening support offices in universities that can communicate what’s available directly with students and researchers.

Addressing sustainability challenges

Students and early career researchers are well placed to work together to ensure a sustainable future. Dr Luciana Radut-Gaghiopens in new tab/window, Vice President for EUTOPIAopens in new tab/window at CY Cergy Paris Universityopens in new tab/window, shared how university alliances are a good instrument to address SDGs because students are engaged in reflection and solution searching for current challenges that affect their own futures.

Photograph of Luciana Radut-Gaghi

Luciana Radut-Gaghi, PhD

Silvia Gomez Recioopens in new tab/window, Secretary General of YERUNopens in new tab/window – Young European Research Universities Network, said that with 74% of YERUN’s member network in an alliance, the organization has seen much progress in terms of sustainability. Still, she added, support and cooperation are needed to tackle sustainability challenges on a greater scale.

Creating alliances as independent legal entities  

Two speakers discussed the value of exploring the legal status of alliances. Representing ENLIGHTopens in new tab/window.

Prof Laurent Servant, Vice President for International Networks at Université de Bordeaux, emphasized the need to make universities sustainable in terms of legal regulation and accreditation issues. He said institutional transformation can create new systems for university alliances, with opportunities for students, staff and professors. Laurent said that forming alliances gives the opportunity to spread collaboration with new partners and define a shared mindset. He further suggested it would be helpful to review how diplomas are accredited and look into creating a legal structure to make consortia of universities competitive with other global universities.

Photograph of Laurent Servant

Prof Laurent Servant, PhD

Silvia said alliances are complementary to existing university networks and can accomplish things networks cannot on their own. Alliances require a level of trust and deep engagement that you can only get with a close and much smaller group of universities, she explained.

Because the role of alliances is to go further in cooperation levels than at single universities, she added, it will be important to give them tools and mechanisms to enable such cooperation while respecting their autonomy, notwithstanding that that one key aim of the initiative is to remove barriers to collaboration for all universities in Europe.

Photograph of Silvia Gomez Recio

Silvia Gomez Recio

Moving from mobility to integration of resources

Taking mobility a step further, Stefano discussed overcoming mobility and moving toward integration. He said integration would mean combining knowledge, assets, courses and infrastructures in the alliances, to be shared by all communities, students and scientists regardless of where they come from. According to Stefano, it would overcome the bureaucracy of mobility and improve access to resources in a broader network.


Portrait photo of Zoë Genova


Zoë Genova

Communications Manager, STM Journals


Read more about Zoë Genova
Portrait photo of Federica Rosetta


Federica Rosetta

VP of Academic & Research Relations, EU