Share it

From the creation of the European Universities Initiative to the ENHANCE Alliance

A short summary of the development of the European Universities Initiative by Laurine Margaux Tiran, Junior Project Officer at the ENHANCE Alliance


With an idea considered as old as the idea of European integration itself, a supra national university had been envisioned many times before it took shape in the European University Initiative. The political scholar Andrew Gunn offers in his article “The European Universities Initiative: A Study of Alliance Formation in Higher Education” in the anthology “European Higher Education Area – Challenges for a new decade” (2020) an overview of the history of an initiative that seems young but has been in conversations for more than seventy years.


It all started with the German economist Alfred Müller-Armack in 1948 who saw the European integration as a community of intellectuals that would result in the creation of a European University. The German academic and diplomat Walter Hallstein elaborated on this vision in 1955 by reasoning that European cohesion could be achieved not only through economics but also through culture.


At this time, even if it was not a priority, France started to examine the possibility of a European University with regard to the development of a new way to use nuclear energy. The debate was opened: Should a European University focus on education, culture, or research to increase European unity? A preliminary concept of a European University related to energy was first introduced in the EURATOM treaty in 1950 but was not pursued further.


The idea re-emerged a decade later, in 1960, at the time of the opening of the European University Institute in Florence in 1972. However, the Institute was never meant to become a supranational institution and cannot be understood as a “European University” as we imagine today.  


A European Institute of Technologies was floated in 2005 but never realised as the concept of a European University had lost support in a European politic that was focused on other topics.


The European Universities Initiative: from Macron’s speech to the European texts


It wasn’t until 2017 and the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron at the university La Sorbonne that the idea reappeared on centre stage and started to develop.


Macron’s speech, given for an event celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Parisian university, wasn’t particularly focused on the future of higher education in Europe. He actually mentioned a variety of other topics. But among them, he set goals for student mobility and exchange, such as all students speaking at least two European languages by 2024 or a certain proportion of the population having spent at least six months abroad, and he acknowledged the important role of intellectuals and universities in building a stronger Europe. He then officially referred to the concept of a European University with a clear goal: Create at least 20 consortiums before 2024.


A few weeks later, on 14 November 2017, the idea of a European university could be found in official texts such as the report “Strengthening European Identity through Education and Culture” by the European Commission. The report established actions for the following years, including for instance the idea of by 2022 realising a Europe where no borders could prevent anyone from studying or conducting research abroad. Even though these communiqués only touched the surface of the concept of European Universities, they were officially mentioned in the European Council’s conclusions as soon as December 2017, still mentioning the goal of establishing 20 European Universities by 2024.


The conclusions of a mapping exercise of existing partnerships conducted by the Council’s Education Committee (May 2018) offered more ideas for the shaping of the European Universities Initiative.


After months of negotiations, the European Universities Initiative was launched by the European Commission at the end of 2018 in the Erasmus + Programme Guide for 2019 and a first call for proposals was launched. In these documents, the initiative took shape and clarified the important points prospective beneficiaries would need to respect and put in place through their actions. Among the instruments for better cooperation between universities and simplified mobility structures, the initiative placed emphasis on the geographical representation, which has been a very important point for the development of the alliances since the beginning. The European Commission wanted to guarantee that Europe as a whole was represented in the initiative, not only those countries more attractive for student mobility or with the most recognised higher institutions. These criteria were very clear in the call for proposals published in 2018, which led to the creation of the first 17 European University alliances in 2019. Under the leadership of Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, other calls for proposals have followed and the members of the ENHANCE Alliance submitted a joint proposal for the call of 2020, which was successful! 


The origins of the ENHANCE Alliance


The ENHANCE Alliance was founded in November 2019, but relationships between the consortium members are far older and well established: Many ENHANCE member universities were already strategic partners before starting this project. Some member universities had already worked collectively on the concept of a transnational university without borders via participation in networks such as Alliance 4 Tech or the IDEA League.


Combining existing strong relationships between partners and other international networks with the objective of the European Universities Initiative, the ENHANCE Alliance came to life. Seven universities of technology (TUB, PoliMi, RWTH Aachen, Chalmers, NTNU, Warsaw University of Technology, and UPV) united around a shared vision: the idea that they should have an important role in society and be the driving force for a sustainable transformation. Together, they cover a large and diverse geographic zone across Europe, from North to South and East to West, and represent various traditions and practices on the topics of education and research, each one having their own cultural identity. With this representation, the ENHANCE Alliance makes sure no European region is left behind in the development of common solutions. The partners share similarities but also differences regarding their focus or their education offer, which allows the Alliance to propose an interdisciplinary point of view.


Today, ENHANCE therefore represents an alliance of research-intensive universities with a focus on science and technology, based on longstanding bilateral or network cooperation among its member universities. Together they continue to help shape the idea of the ‘European University’ and create lasting impact for European students and society.


We invite you all to join us on the ENHANCE journey! Find out more about our  educational offers and research activities here.