Sustainable Universities in the 21st century

Tomáš Zima, Rector, Charles University, Honorary President Coimbra Group

Charles University in Prague was the proud virtual host of the 2021 Annual Conference of the Coimbra Group – the result of over a year of fruitful collaboration between the Executive Board, the staff of the University and the Coimbra Group Office.  More than any other moment, it is this yearly gathering that makes us feel as members of the large Coimbra Group family of oldest European Universities. From 7 to 23 June – an exceptionally longer period than the traditional three days due to the event’s virtual format – over 500 colleagues engaged in in-depth discussions and fruitful exchanges of ideas and practices.

As is tradition, the Annual Conference of our network is organised under an overarching theme. This year’s theme was “Sustainable Universities in the 21st century”, a timely topic given that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) inspire reflection on and formulation of university strategy policies. Education, research and innovation policies are formed at many levels: international, European, national and local one. Universities – as independent and autonomous entities – operate within this multilevel governance model characterized by complex vertical and horizontal interactions.

Likewise, the Coimbra Group is an increasingly proactive and visible player at all levels, due to its involvement in consultation processes with the European Commission, Parliament and Council, continuous exchange with sister organizations and other networks, national authorities and, of course, its constituent universities.

The public conference focused on SDG#16 (promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies), more specifically about universities as effective, accountable and inclusive institutions and as providers of “solutions” to all SDGs at different levels.

It was a real honour to have such prominent guest speakers as Professor Gary Marks (University of North Carolina and Robert Schuman Centre in Florence), Amina J. Muhammad (Deputy Secretary General and Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group), Mariya Gabriel (Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth), and Luís de Almeida Sampaio (Ambassador of Portugal to the Czech Republic), each bringing the perspective of a different entity playing a key role in the multilevel governance model.

The topic of sustainability was also addressed in relation to the European Universities Initiative, which was the focus of the second part of the public conference. On that occasion, the Coimbra Group reiterated its recommendations – as published on 7 June – on the rolling out of the initiative. The contributions and the debates showed the interconnectedness of all levels of governance and necessity of close communication. Bottom-up approach, flexibility, creativity, inclusiveness, preservation of university autonomy, implementation of programmatic funding, gradual expansion without financial penalties and inclusion of the UK were some of the key takeaways.

In a pivotal moment characterized by a changing higher education and research landscape, the beginning of the new EU framework programmes, and by ever so pressing global challenges, the debate was, unsurprisingly, rich and intense. European University Alliances play a role model for the future of Universities and the Coimbra Group will continue ensuring that all its members benefit fully from the initiative whether they are already involved in an alliance or not.

The Rectors and Vice-Rectors of the 41 constituent universities of the Coimbra Group were joined by Ms Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, Head of Unit Higher Education at the Directorate-General Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, and Ms Apostolia Karamali, Head of Unit R&I Actors and Research Careers at the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, for a collective reflection on the European Strategy for Universities to be adopted by the end of the year.

The Coimbra Group strongly advocated for universities to have a prominent place in the governance structure of the European Education Area, the European Research Area and the European High Education Area. The perspective of comprehensive, multidisciplinary universities such as ours, should also be better reflected in the making of European research policies. What came to the fore during our Annual Conference is that the Coimbra Group is perfectly placed to play a mediating role within the different governance levels, including the national one.

Have a wonderful summer and hopefully the next Coimbra Group Annual Conference will be face-to-face.

Source: Coimbra Group Universities


European Higher Education Organization

European Higher Education Organization is a public organization carrying out academic, educational and information activities on higher education in Europe. The EHEO general plan stresses that: Higher education systems require adequate funding and, as an investment in economic growth, public spending in higher education should be protected. The challenges faced by higher education require more flexible governance and funding systems, which balance greater autonomy for education institutions with accountability to stakeholders. Thus, EHEO plans: improve academic and scientific interaction of universities; protect the interests of universities; interact more closely with public authorities of European countries; popularize European higher education in the world; develop academic mobility; seek funding for European universities.

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