The European University: How universities can save the European idea

Prof Martin Paul, president of Maastricht University, says universities can create an ecosystem for a generation who see a new European idea

In the ongoing debate about the future of Europe, polarised opinions have not been helpful in fostering a sensitive and sensible dialogue as it has been seen over the last few years in many European countries.

Sometimes the impression is that there is an ‘either-or’ discussion and both sides accuse the other of one-sidedness and political blind spots.

The pro-Europeans are easily labelled as blind followers that jump over the Brussels cliff like lemmings and the Eurosceptics as right-wing extremists wanting the European idea to implode out of pure selfishness.

Such stereotypes are not helpful in moving ahead together, and polarisation has never boded well for societies, generally.

A common European approach and European unity has been a guarantor for peace and prosperity over the last 75 years. This is in sharp contrast to the negative experiences of a Europe built solely of national states, which has led to conflict and war. Universities are responsible for educating the European citizens of the future and, therefore, need to play an active role in redefining what is meant by a sustainable Europe.

The YUFE alliance

Maastricht University responded to a long-awaited call to develop a joint European university platform to identify and address common issues in different European countries and launched the YUFE alliance, Young Universities for the Future of Europe. The alliance was formed with universities from Madrid, Rome, Antwerp, Bremen, Essex, Cyprus and Eastern Finland and a number of associated partners to create a new concept of what a truly European university could look like and these are currently turning the proposal into a leading model for university education in Europe.

The new university will bring talented young people together from its different partners to work in a range of disciplines in the different urban contexts, so YUFE students gain a range of academic and cultural experiences relating to different regions of Europe. The university system will provide a range of inter-university courses and a virtual campus that will foster student and staff mobility. There will also be an emphasis on part-time and flexible learners, and students will contribute to develop housing solutions that facilitate cultural exchange, mutual support and integration with the local community.

The alliance is committed to excellence, not to elitism – YUFE is an open community which will build and develop a new university model based on involving a range of students who are seen as partners.

The pro-Europeans are easily labelled as blind followers that jump over the Brussels cliff like lemmings and the Eurosceptics as right-wing extremists wanting the European idea to implode out of pure selfishness

Student representatives will also act as board members in the planning and organisation of courses and of the wider university system. Being inclusive as an academic institution remains a challenge. That is why YUFE partners have joined forces with KIRON, a German NGO that uses digital tools to help young people enter academia – especially those that come from first-generation families, those that are economically challenged or are refugees.

The goal is to create an inclusive European university on multiple locations, which is accessible for all, not just those from privileged backgrounds. Internships which will enable students to work with local authorities and the business community will be an important part of an outward-looking education. These could include working with the developing sustainable ecosystems near Maastricht, creating more efficient public transport systems in Cyprus or contributing to solving socio-economic issues in Essex.

It’s envisioned that the new model of university education will have far-reaching effects across communities, helping to transform them for the better. One example of this is implementing the principle of ‘Citizen Science’, where an institution not only responds directly to the needs of society, but also involves them in discussing ‘Science for Society’.

The aim is to create a common ecosystem for a new generation of Europeans who are seeing the regional strengths in different countries as a base for a new European idea

Ultimately, the aim is to create a common ecosystem for a new generation of Europeans who are seeing the regional strengths in different countries as a base for a new European idea that is built on inclusion, not division. European universities, therefore, should not only learn and study society, but also take an active role in their communities. YUFE will provide students with the skills they need to be highly employable and will offer relevant European career paths to all members of society. In so doing, the alliance will strengthen its collective identity and contribute to a more cohesive European society.

Prof Martin Paul is president of Maastricht University.


Read more: Civic universities: can HEIs drive change in local communities?


 

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