CIVIS achievements, obstacles and future challenges: an interview with Annemie Schaus, Rector of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and the current President of CIVIS.
Q: CIVIS is now well into the third and final year of its first funding period. What would you say are the most significant achievements of the Alliance at this point?
A: We are coming to the end of what was designed as a pilot phase. The goal of these first 3 years was to test the concept, see how universities from different countries could join forces to create innovative approaches and, ultimately, to increase the capacity of all member universities to fulfil their missions and to face international competition. In less than 3 years, CIVIS has grown into a mature alliance of universities which have learned to know and trust each other, and who have developed a shared and ambitious vision of what they can and would like to achieve together. CIVIS has laid the foundations of a powerful alliance with an incredible potential for collaboration in all domains and for the full range of missions and expectations from top-level universities.
We’ve already developed a diverse educational offer founded on innovative approaches to university-level teaching. Hundreds of students per year undertake a short-term mobility to another CIVIS university and we’re experimenting with new forms of virtual mobility. Our Open Labs are supporting impactful projects in the cities and regions where CIVIS member universities are based. Meanwhile, the CIVIS hubs are forging links between academics across the Alliance, so they can develop new courses and projects together.
Q: CIVIS is hard at work to prepare an application for a new funding period. What is at stake with this new application?
A: Initially, CIVIS was just a pilot project funded by the European Commission. The next phase will consolidate the ties and the shared vision and projects into a standing alliance that will exist beyond and above whatever funded projects will be obtained and managed among its members. Tools and procedures will be developed to allow a range of collaborative undertakings oriented towards a range of objectives that we will choose carefully. Although the activities are initially predominantly oriented towards teaching, they will gradually span the full range of the missions of universities including research and innovation, and service to the community.
Q: The European authorities are very enthusiastic about the European universities and are determined to see them grow (they would like 60 European universities involving 10% of all higher education institutions across the European Union). Is that to say that the existing universities are considered too small to face the challenges of tomorrow?
A: Not exactly. European universities are not aiming towards any kind of merger into a set of very large, multinational institutions. And if they are, I can assure you that CIVIS doesn’t see it that way at all. The idea is more that on some topics, for some types of activities, to face complex challenges, we will be much more relevant and efficient if we work together. Within such an alliance, we are able to achieve things we probably could not do, or could not do so well, on our own. By joining forces with some or all of the partners, we can gain enough critical mass and momentum to deliberate, plan and act in decisive ways. But beyond these coordinated activities, each member university remains completely autonomous and keeps its specificities. Our diversity is not a liability, it is a major asset of CIVIS.
Q: The member universities of CIVIS are very diverse, and what the alliance means to them must vary accordingly. What does CIVIS represent for ULB?
A: Being one of only two comprehensive universities based in Brussels has always given ULB a particular sensitivity to the European project. Our Institute of European Studies was one of the very first of its kind when it was founded in 1962. Being part of one of the first wave of pioneer European universities is consistent with our history of being very international in the capital of Europe and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Like many publicly funded universities, we suffer from being structurally underfunded, at a time where we face years of growth of student numbers and while so much is expected from universities to face a combination of urgent societal challenges. CIVIS is a unique opportunity to join forces with some of the best universities in Europe to face those challenges together while keeping our complete independence and specificities.
Q: What are the main obstacles you’ve encountered in developing CIVIS?
A: Today’s universities, whether they are very old or more recent, share roots going back centuries and which have always relied on a largely shared set of principles and objectives. Providing the best education in the broadest range of topics, by scholars involved in cutting-edge research in the relevant disciplines is what we all strive to do. Having that in common is so powerful and so stimulating that all difficulties and obstacles appear almost negligible. But we know from experience that even a negligible obstacle can be crippling, so we must pay a lot of attention even to what might amount to small details. Legal constraints are especially tricky. Education is organised and financed by national or subnational public authorities. The laws, traditions and contexts that characterise each member university are, in a way, cumulative for any alliance-wide project. Let me give you two examples. When we develop teaching activities, we’d like some of them to allow students to earn ECTS credits. Yet the conditions to fulfil to make that possible vary considerably among countries. Therefore, we must try to comply with all regulations or all member universities to avoid discriminating among students. Another example is even simpler: the academic calendars (when teaching starts, when evaluations take place…) vary considerably across the Alliance (e.g. the member university that starts its academic year first does so 6 weeks earlier than the last).
Q: What would you say sets CIVIS apart from other alliances?
A: We don’t define ourselves in comparison to others. We don’t feel we’re competing with the other alliances, unlike businesses which are forced to define the unique selling proposition. In fact, we are in continuous contact with the other alliances, mostly the 16 other first-generation alliances via a Forum which regularly gathers representatives of all alliances to share experience and discuss various topics. Having said that, we like to think that we’re quite unique in more than one way. First and foremost, we called ourselves “a European civic university” for a reason. We feel very strongly that universities play a key role in giving the young people who study with us not just the knowledge and skills set associated with the field they chose, but also in stimulating and forging their personality to include a sense of civic-mindedness and European identity. We want to give them opportunities to engage in civic action and to experience multiculturalism, no matter what subject they’re studying. And we think that this doesn’t come at the expense of other skills but will in fact reinforce those other skills. When it comes to the broader picture, CIVIS is unique in its attention to Africa and the Mediterranean region. We are convinced that the future of Europe and Africa are closely linked and we intend to collaborate with universities in these regions to co-create the knowledge and the technologies of the future. CIVIS is also very dedicated to innovate and be a role model of inclusiveness. As the pressure on universities to aim towards excellence (whatever that means) and to prepare young people for a labour market that is ever more demanding, there is a risk that those who had lesser opportunities in life would be left behind. We won’t let that happen and we will show the world that they are often the best of us.