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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


Question 1: Can European University Alliances still deliver on their ambitious programmes after COVID 2019, them being the flagships of the European Education Area?

KK: Good question. The verdict is still out. Universities tend to say: “We have enough on our plate with the forced digitalisation; we have more than enough uncertainty on how we can teach and do research for the coming semesters: we really can’t engage in intensive reform or transformation activities”.

PVDH: An understandable reaction in the short term, but we must think strategically. The ambitions set out for European Universities will not go away. Big transformations in education, research & innovation and service to society are already under way. The initial emphasis of European Universities was on improving and integrating education; now the selected alliances are also invited to develop common research & innovation agendas.

KK: The Aurora Alliance has big ambitions across all university missions. In education, for instance, we will develop a toolkit for transversal skills and mind-sets (e.g. as regards problem solving). And we will systematically integrate these into the learning process across all partners and programmes. This will allow us to add a focus on SDGs, so that our graduates will be able tackle the big challenges our societies are facing.

PVDH: It is encouraging to see that most of Europe’s bigger ‘system-relevant’ institutions want to be part of this benchmarking exercise. Also specialised institutions and universities of applied sciences have made original proposals. Corona makes transformation not less urgent, but emphasis may shift in order to better calibrate university missions and societal needs, for instance as regards short courses for re-training (micro-credentials).

Question 2: Will we see the end of internationalisation as we know it e.g. less physical mobility?

PVDH: I would indeed expect more online collaboration and sharing of facilities, rather than further increases in physical mobility. The two or three university-hopping ideal was anyhow an elite thing and not very Greta. A shift towards more sustainable collaboration would also fit the EU Green Deal and the Digital Action Plan. European University Alliances are well positioned to experiment with new collaborative approaches, as part of their assignments under the calls launched by the EC Education and R&I departments.

KK: Absolutely. I never understood the mix-up between “all students need to have an opportunity” (for international experience) and “all students must travel” (for at least three months). Internationalisation of education is all about developing the competence to live and work in a globally interconnected world. I can see most European University Alliances aiming for virtual mobility, short-term mobility and internationalisation of the classroom and the curriculum. That is the way to go and that is the way Aurora is going.

Question 3: What will be the impact on the gap between stronger and weaker knowledge regions in Europe, on brain drain?

PVDH: Brain drain is natural but can be mitigated by online cooperation, access to and sharing of infrastructure, co-nominations of staff and targeted investments in underdeveloped regions.

One could even imagine ‘Special Education Zones’ (cf. Special Economic Zones) in weaker knowledge regions, where rules may differ from national ones and where universities and research institutes would operate under the wings of a European University Alliance.

This could lead to the much-acclaimed ‘European Statute’ for single institutions and cooperatives that stand out and apply all the goodies of Bologna and ERA (e.g. automatic recognition, open science, open recruitment).

KK: Again, I fully agree. Why not imagine ´Special Knowledge Zones´ where excellent research facilities attract eminent researchers, teachers and innovators from across Europe. With the corona-inflicted economic bad weather we expect, relative cost advantages in CE Europe can help to make these ‘Special Zones’ more attractive. We would certainly examine how the CEE ‘associate partner’ universities in the Aurora Alliance can play a role in this.

Question 4: Everything went online overnight – what is the long-term perspective?

PVDH: Online education technology and pedagogy require new expertise in universities and with accreditors. In future, reviewing the quality of online provision will be the number one task of accreditors.

The basic Bologna Standards and Guidelines (ESG) will continue to apply, but the other ESG (Environmental, Social and Governmental standards) will be gaining in importance rapidly!

I also expect to see an exponential growth in third party validation (or trusted crowd assessment) of online provision, especially as concerns short courses (micro-credentials) and other types of sub-degree offerings (micro-degrees).

Students, lifelong learners, employers and professional bodies will express their appreciation online and almost real-time. Universities, integrating online courses produced elsewhere into their curricula will also act as third-party validators.

Trusted crowd assessment, artificial intelligence and block-chain techniques will scale up, analyse, open up and secure third party quality reviews by, complementing and maybe surpassing the work currently done by accreditors.

KK: Well, I actually hope that the pandemic will bring back some sense into the QA charade. Ask professors and they agree that the correlation between QA as we know it and quality is negative! Assessing process quality without defining outcome quality, that is the root of the problem. I am not sure your ’trusted crowds’ will bring the solution. It sounds like “if many people like graduates from a certain programme, we don’t need to know what they actually, know, understand or can do.” It will be more about popularity than about quality, I fear.

Outcome definition in terms of subject expertise is progressing; at the Aurora Alliance we hope to express more precisely what students need to be good at (and how good) in general academic and personal competences. That will serve both online and on campus education.

PVDH: I agree that we need a longitudinal evidence-based perspective on what works and what doesn’t. The CALOHEE project assessing learning outcomes is also promising in this respect.

Question 5: On a global scale, will Europe fall behind more rapidly?

KK: Decline is in the eye of the beholder. The US leads in the global top 50 and Chinese universities are on their way up – Corona or no Corona. But at system level, Europe is very strong: look at the top 10%, or the top 25%. Look at the number of good universities against very weak universities across these systems and you’ll see that Europe more than holds its own.

If governments and the Commission stick to research and education as primarily a public good and to a high medium and high lowest quality rather than supporting only a few peaks, I have faith in European R&I. Let’s hope that Corona tilts the balance a bit further towards HE&R as a public good. Of course, this assumes that the universities understand they serve a public purpose. At Aurora, we call this “matching academic excellence with societal relevance”.

PVDH: All very well, but I am not sure Europe can survive in the global competition on relatively high average quality only. Top scoring universities in Horizon are mostly in the UK, Switzerland and Israel. We should cooperate well with these neighbours, but we should also build our own champions by investing in clusters of university eco-systems as is done in the new EU industrial policy, and we should not focus only on cross-border cooperation. Europe needs to defend its sovereignty also in the knowledge area. EIT was a start and so are European Universities, but more focus and more clout will be needed.

KK: Yes, the world is bigger than the EU, we must not forget this and we must hope that our governments don’t forget that it.

PVDH: That seems a good way to end this conversation.

Peter van der Hijden

Peter van der Hijden is an independent higher education strategy advisor. He worked at Maastricht University before joining the EU Commission where he headed the Sector Higher Education Policy and contributed to Erasmus, Bologna, Horizon and ERA.

Kees Kouwenaar

Kees Kouwenaar is Secretary General of the Aurora Universities Network. In his 38 years in international education he has worked in diploma recognition, mobility programmes, and legal & higher education capacity development. In the Mastermind Europe Project, he developed a competence-based approach to admission to Master’s programmes.


The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA is publishing every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well-known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.