Last month, I attended the Spring Forum for International Student Affairs which took place at the University of Jyvaskyla. During the event I had the opportunity to speak with João Bacelar, the Executive Director of the European University Foundation (EUF). In this interview, João explains how student mobility is a powerful catalyst to help modernise universities and how the EUF is making digitalisation a priority for the next 5-7 years with projects such as the Erasmus Without Paper, the Online Learning Agreement and the Erasmus+ App.
What is the European University Foundation and how does it help modernise the European Higher Education area?
The European University Foundation (EUF) is a network of universities committed to bring about a modern, strong and competitive European Higher Education Area. The experience of the last decades has shown that student mobility is a very powerful catalyst for modernising universities. We advocate for a substantial increase of the quantity and quality of our exchange programmes by regularly putting forward new ideas, policies and recommendations to that effect. We have a storied record of promoting policy innovation and contributing to the further development of the Erasmus programme.
"Student mobility is a very powerful catalyst for modernising universities."
What are the main projects that the foundation focus on?
The Foundation cooperation framework consists of five key pillars - quality mobility, employability, digital higher education, policy innovation and active citizenship. In 2015, our Rectors decided that digitisation should be a strategic priority for the coming 5-7 years. Therefore we have been very involved in projects such as the Erasmus Without Paper, the Online Learning Agreement and the Erasmus+ App to the fruition of students and universities from across the continent. The combined effect of these initiatives in the years ahead will be tremendous, and we are already seeing radical efficiency gains across the entire administrative lifecycle of Europe’s flagship programme.
A main focus for the foundation is employability. How does the foundation promote employability and entrepreneurship?
The Foundation and its member universities have jointly developed open educational resources dealing with the promotion of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship and establishing regional cooperation clusters meant to bridge the gap with economic actors. We have also set up micro-knowledge transfer projects involving exchange students who combine study and work while abroad. Our current focus is on doctoral education and on improving the connection between young researchers with public and private sector organisations. Improving existing links should lead to more co-funding opportunities for doctoral research and new avenues to broadcast the knowledge accrued in such spheres.
How would you describe your role at EUF?
My role is essentially that of enabling the best ideas of the colleagues from our member universities, ensuring sufficient expertise is at hand to support their development and implementation and ensuring their potential is translated into the European policy landscape. It’s a fantastic job because it gives me outstanding insight into the ability of European universities to transform and improve our societies.
What is your favourite thing about working with the Higher Education sector?
It’s hard to pick just one, as it comes down to a combination of factors: the sheer depth of talent would certainly make the list, and so would the fact that while it’s an increasingly competitive sector, many of its actors are moved by a sense of social responsibility. Creativity and intellectual merit are also weaved into the fabric of higher education ecosystems, while unlocking its full potential requires a reasonable understanding of the culture and governance of universities.
"While HE is an increasingly competitive sector, many of its actors are moved by a sense of social responsibility."
The foundation is composed of 19 university members. Can other universities apply for membership?
Whilst full membership of the EUF is possible on an invitation-only basis we do have an associate membership scheme that is meant to ensure our policy and projects are informed by an ever wider and diverse group of higher education institutions. The scheme is very recent but it already involves ten universities in addition to our 19 full members, and our goal is to work with universities from all Erasmus programme countries and beyond!
A lot of new Erasmus+ funded projects and systems are introduced in 2018 to improve the student mobility experience. Can you highlight some of these projects and its impact in the student mobility experience?
Last February we launched the Erasmus App which allows international relations officers to communicate with their exchange students via push notifications for free. As the Erasmus+ programme continues to grow, greater attention needs to be paid to its quality, and improving communication between the IROs and exchange students is an important step in that direction. Additionally, projects such as SocialErasmus+ are also looking into fundamental issues, such as the social dimension and active citizenship of Erasmus students, which is an area where we could and should be doing more.
How do you see the future of the Erasmus+ programme?
I think we have reasons to be optimistic. Europe’s leaders have recognised its central importance for the future of the Union by proposing to double its funding from 2021 and initiatives such as the European Universities should provide a powerful laboratory for us to turbocharge student mobility well beyond today’s standards. There is still a lot of work to do until embarking on an exchange programme becomes a right of every European student, but I like to think we are on track to reach a day where more than 50% of Europe’s students spent an academic year or more abroad.
"I like to think that we are on track to reach a day where more than 50% of the Europe's students spent an academic year or more abroad."
The Higher education sector has faced many changes over the last few years and will continue to do so. How do you think these changes will impact international student mobility?
Some of the changes faced by the Higher Education sector are related to the increasing prevalence of internationalisation activities and the need for universities to be more open and connected. While political developments could unravel the progress achieved in this arena, I think we will witness a continued and sustained increase of student mobility worldwide.
"Some of the changes faced by the HE sector are related to the increasing prevalence of internationalisation activities and the needs for universities to be more open and connected."
What are the future plans of EUF?
Our current focus is on doing everything in our power so the Erasmus+ programme of 2021 will be a marked improvement over its predecessors, both with respect to resources available, quality of its digital infrastructure and overall student experience. In the meantime, we have a raft of new initiatives that will be rolled out in the years ahead, ranging from enhancing the quality of training afforded to university staff and experimenting with new blended learning models to looking to decrease the social selectivity that still limits participation in international student mobility.
My job in higher ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.