Friday 17. September 2021
#218 - September 2018

The dream of a European Campus

Building Europe through education was among the main proposals the French president Emmanuel Macron put forward in one of the most pro-European speeches by an EU leader that can be remembered since years.

At La Sorbonne University, Macron presented his vision to win back the support of disgruntled citizens, leading the deadlocked EU out of crisis and towards greater integration. Among his calls for action, however, one stood out due to its bold sense of a united Europe: the creation of a network of European universities.


The proposal was neither trivial nor coincidental. In the middle of one of the deepest crisis the EU has undergone, Macron pointed to a pillar for change in societies: education. He suggested creating a network of universities across Europe with programmes encouraging students to study abroad and take classes in at least two languages. The goal was to create 20 “European Universities” granting European diplomas by 2024.


First steps towards the European Universities


The realization of Macron’s ambitious proposal is already on its way. The “4EU” alliance between Sorbonne, Heidelberg, Warsaw and Charles University in Prague is the first of several expected cross-border deals to boost collaboration in research, infrastructure, student mobility and academic curricula. The European Council also welcomed Macron’s initiative in its 2017 December Conclusions by portraying the proposal as a decisive way for creative Europeans to cooperate in different languages, across borders and disciplines, to address the European societal challenges. Furthermore, in order to define the full concept of this initiative, the European Commission is currently consulting stakeholders at all levels, from grassroot practitioners to government ministries in Member States.


To this must be added that, in April 2018, six European universities signed an agreement in Bologna: KU Leuven (Belgium), Freie Universität Berlin (Germany), University of Bologna (Italy), Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie (Poland), Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain), and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (France). This alliance aimed to encourage a structural development of the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area and may eventually lead to a truly European University.


A continuation of previous similar projects


Nevertheless, Macron’s project is not new. Already in the Middle Ages, there was a European network of Catholic universities which favoured academic exchange at a regional level. More recently, in 1988, 388 rectors from all over Europe signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, which already stated the need to further develop the unique constellation of study, teaching and research represented by the European universities for the last millennium.


Likewise, the 1999 Bologna Declaration already proposed a European Higher Education Area in which students and graduates could move freely between countries, using prior qualifications in one country as acceptable entry requirements for further study in another. Why has Macron’s education ambition re-emerged at this concrete moment then? The answer may reside in the renewed momentum of universities as guardians of European values, nurturers of tomorrow's talents and hence among the key actors to address the existential crisis of the EU.


Indeed, the creation of this network of European universities takes the European project one step further, aiming at a “European common campus” which could eventually help in building bridges and fighting against nationalistic ambitions. Macron’s initiative could thus be understood as a soft power approach based on common culture, education and shared experiences, always with multilingualism at the centre.


Obstacles on the road towards a European campus


All that glitters is not gold though. Macron’s proposal is also full of open questions. The most significant one is probably what the scheme’s added value will be in comparison with other existing mechanisms, such as Erasmus+. Another important point is the commitment of Member States. Differences among countries are considerable and may pose significant challenges concerning the implementation of the proposal and the creation of an “European campus.” As the Bologna declaration leaves up to the country to define the exact formula of its higher education (3 years of Bachelor + 1 year of Master’s in the UK, 3+2 or 4+1 in most EU countries), how would Macron’s idea solve the problem of different structures of EU higher education systems?


Feasibility arises as another remarkable concern: are Member States prepared to reduce the bureaucratic procedures around mobility, thus guaranteeing greater complementarity of national regulations? Finally, Brexit may also pose a challenge since leaving British universities such as Oxford out of the equation could eventually result in the failure of an originally promising initiative.


Macron’s proposal poses both glimpses of hope and unresolved questions. Even though the project seems promising, there are still significant questions to be addressed if such initiative truly intends to achieve its ambitions of fostering a much higher degree of exchange between students and researchers across the continent. Time and stakeholders’ willingness will tell whether this proposal succeeds or becomes blurred together with the considerable number of originally well-intentioned EU initiatives.


Javier Martín Merchán and María Verdugo Martín



We would like to thank Drs. Miro Haček and Simona Kukovič (working on the JESC European Leadership Programme) for their helpful comments on an earlier version.


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