The role of European universities for the sustainable transformation of society
It is also essential to map the initiatives that provide a response to the different sustainable development goals and the building of bridges between educational institutions as indicated by the work of Valdés and Comendador (2022), which recommends future research on the best practices of these alliances and deepening the understanding of the differential and common factors in best practices.
In recent years, work highlighting the role of education for sustainable development and the achievement of sustainable development goals has intensified, particularly that of higher education and its recognition – Sustainable Higher Education Institutions (Aleixo et al., 2018), prestige and reputation (Žalėnienė & Pereira, 2021) and prominence among direct (Portuguese polytechnics and universities) and indirect (foreign higher education institutions) competitors.
In a global world where higher education institutions are increasingly competitive, it is essential to draw the attention of their main stakeholders, namely their students (future, current and former students) and employees (teaching and non-teaching staff) to what makes the institutions stand out from their competitors.
Given the growing challenges of maintaining their position in the market and the reduced state budget, it is now a top priority to find new forms of self-financing, notably through applying for national and international programmes and developing services with the community. Internationalisation can be used not only to distinguish institutions from their competitors but also to leverage this funding by developing strategic partnerships that can enhance new projects (for example, through the Horizon Europe Programme), and encourage student and employee mobility between countries. This will promote their position among both direct competitors (Portuguese institutions) and their international partners (European and international institutions).
In November 2017, European universities appear in a European Commission proposal to the leaders of the European Union with the aim of creating a European Education Area by 2025. According to the Erasmus Programme Guide, European universities come under the Cooperation Projects of the Erasmus+ Programme in the scope of the Knowledge Alliances action and result in financial support from the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 (now Horizon Europe) programmes aimed at improving quality, inclusion, digitalisation and the attractiveness of universities.
European universities seek to achieve the following two objectives:
- to bring together a new generation of Europeans who can cooperate and work within different European and global cultures, in different languages, and across borders, sectors and academic disciplines.
- to achieve quality, performance, attractiveness and international competitiveness, and to contribute to the European economy of knowledge, employment, culture, civic engagement, and well-being.
European universities include all types of higher education institutions and respond to a long-term vision for transforming cooperation and achieving the following goals by 2025:
- Share an integrated and joint long-term strategy for education;
- Establish an inter-university European higher education “campus”; and
- Build European knowledge creation teams (“challenge-based approach”) of students and academics.
Under Erasmus+ (Erasmus+ Portugal, 2022), the first seventeen alliances of higher education institutions were selected in the 1st call in 2019 and the European Education Area was then strengthened in the 2nd call the following year with twenty-four new institutions. Three Portuguese institutions (University of Lisbon, University of Porto and the University of Aveiro) were integrated in three of the seventeen approved projects in the first call. Moreover, the second call included 7 Portuguese institutions (University of Coimbra, University of Beira Interior, Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, Polytechnic Institute of Porto, Polytechnic Institute of Setubal, Polytechnic Institute of Cavado and Ave and Lusophone University) in the twenty-four approved projects. The results for 2022 are already known and the sixteen pre-existing universities will continue to receive support; in addition, there are four new alliances and three new national institutions.
Throughout the different Commission documents, the various priorities of the transdisciplinary long-term visions include sustainable development issues such as: Biodiversity, Sustainable Blue Growth, Climate Protection, Global Health, including reference to the Sustainable Development Goals themselves. In view of the above, it is essential to analyze how European universities plan to respond to this challenge with actions and initiatives that can link and replicate these priorities in a long-term action.
Forty-four European universities, encompassing different countries, cultures and methodologies, are oriented towards the common good in terms of facilitating a response in the different regions to the sustainable development goals: “Deeper and more effective transnational cooperation in the higher education sector across Europe is crucial for sustaining the values, identity and democracy of the Union, building resilience of European society and economy, and for building a sustainable future. To meet the challenges related to green and digital transitions and an aging population, and to ensure Europe’s ability to boost technology competitiveness, Europe needs strongly interconnected higher education institutions” (European Commission, 2022). Therefore, it is now crucial to understand how these European universities effectively promote the development of transnational cooperation alliances which respond to the pursuit of the sustainable development goals. It is also essential to map the initiatives that provide a response to the different sustainable development goals and the building of bridges between educational institutions as indicated by the work of Valdés and Comendador (2022), which recommends future research on the best practices of these alliances and deepening the understanding of the differential and common factors in best practices. As the authors (Valdés & Comendador, 2022) also suggest that the concentration of institutions in Europe is one of the programme’s weaknesses, the participation of institutions from outside the European Union should be encouraged.
Aleixo, A. M., Leal, S., & Azeiteiro, U. (2018). Conceptualizations of sustainability in Portuguese higher education: roles, barriers and challenges toward sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Production, 172, 1664-1673. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.11.010
Erasmus+ Portugal. (2022). Alianças Existentes: Lista completa de Universidades Europeias. Retrieved 12 de Outubro de 2022 from https://erasmusmais.pt/destaques/universidades-europeias/#1646328143593-443fedc8-d5c9d043-5540
European Commission. (2019). What is Horizon 2020? Retrieved January from https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/what-horizon-2020
European Commission. (2022). Proposal for a COUNCIL RECOMMENDATION on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52022DC0017
Valdés, R. M. A., & Comendador, V. F. G. (2022). European Universities Initiative: How Universities May Contribute to a More Sustainable Society. Sustainability, 14(1), 471. https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/14/1/471
Žalėnienė, I., & Pereira, P. (2021). Higher Education For Sustainability: A Global Perspective.