What it means to be part of a European superuniversity

The very name of the alliance perfectly captures the essence of nine European universities which decided to change the functioning of the education system through collaboration. ENLIGHT is not just an acronym - the European University Network to Promote Equitable Quality of Life, Sustainability and Global Engagement through Higher Education Transformation. It also forms a part of the word Enlightenment - the philosophy highlighting the power of reason and empirical thought. We talked to the Vice-Rector for International Relations, Jozef Tancer, about what this cooperation can mean for future students of Comenius University.

12. 10. 2020 11.04 hod.
By: CU Public Relations Office

What is ENLIGHT after all?

It is an alliance of nine universities intended to offer students more varied and interesting study opportunities.

That is fairly general. What will it mean for the students?

Imagine you enrol at Comenius University and through its participation in the alliance you automatically gain access to lectures and seminars at eight other universities. You will have the opportunity to become acquainted with teachers from other European universities and have the chance to collaborate with students in eight other countries. And it won’t be just virtual - you can participate in activities like workshops, summer schools and long-term stays in partner countries. Imagine the results which you could achieve with a study like this. Our idea is for the student to follow a truly international study programme which may take place at universities but which still reflects the events happening in the wider society of which universities are a part. Increased student mobility will mean a big change for teachers who will face a strongly international audience in their courses. At the same time, they will get in touch with teachers and researchers from partner universities, having the chance to cooperate on joint courses.

The whole proposition will be a part of lifelong learning which means that once you have studied in the alliance, you'll be able to use its offerings for life. The first five years of study may be the most intensive in getting to know your future professional orientation but the world around us is changing and we have to constantly adapt our skills and knowledge to its requirements.

Which universities are involved and why did they decide to join forces?

ENLIGHT connects Comenius University with the University of Ghent (BE), University of Bordeaux (FR), University of Uppsala (SE), University of Groningen (NL), the University of the Basque Country (ES), University of Göttingen (DE), the National University of Ireland Galway (IE) and the University of Tartu (EE). The connection embodies the geographical, cultural and linguistic differences of Europe. These are mostly universities with which we already cooperate on projects, publications, etc.

Students already can do all these things through Erasmus+, so what’s new or different here? 

The intention of Erasmus+ was to create a common European educational space but the project itself consists mainly of individual mobility of students, teachers or staff. This mobility, however, does not motivate us to create joint programs, "joint degrees" or to strive for deeper and longer cooperation or communication. This experience has led the European Commission to start looking for a model which would really connect universities at all possible levels. Again, an example can help to understand this better. If you are a student and use Erasmus+ to study at a university in Italy, you will not receive digital access to their AIS. Neither does a teacher. There is a contract but we do not have access to each other's systems because they are completely different. These newly created alliances are expected to morph into something higher, into European universities acting externally as one: a ”superuniversity”. At the moment, this is a very distant goal, because the legislation of our countries is still very different but such university alliances create pressure on individual states to harmonize their education policies and higher education systems.

Under Erasmus+, students spend several months at a different institution. What would happen to this mobility?

At the moment the easiest solution appears to be online learning. Each university would make part of its courses available virtually to students in other countries. I was telling myself while we were designing the project that it would not be so easy to combine forms of on-site and virtual teaching but we tried it now, during the COVID crisis, and it worked. So that is one option. The other one is that they actually visit the other university. In the alliance, there is still the option of using good old Erasmus+ but the difference is that we will know in advance what you are going to do there.  One of the problems with Erasmus+ is that individual departments conclude contracts with other departments without thoroughly knowing their programmes. Students travel abroad and have trouble finding a course which is equivalent to the one they follow at home. We eliminate this problem because we know the programme of the partner university in detail and at the same time we create courses which we know to be attractive. Another example: a student of German studies at Comenius University will have several compulsory subjects to be completed at his/her home university. However, we have a German university in Göttingen, for example, and once there, the student will be able to choose from its optional subjects - a virtual lecture or seminar - and follow it right there. Perhaps the lectures will focus on an area which we do not cover at all, because we don’t have the right expert.

Will it apply to all fields of study?

The idea for these alliances is to transform traditional universities into institutions offering education which responds to current societal challenges. In our alliance we want to address five such major challenges: health, climate change, circular economy, digital revolution and issues of equality or inequality.  Both teachers and students are involved in the preparation of this project from the very beginning and will have a chance to come up with topics that they want to work on.  Our ambition is to gradually involve all faculties.

Will this change the form of study as we know it, apart from the likely shift online?

First of all, we need to find a way to enable the new forms of education offered by ENLIGHT in the existing Slovak legislation. We are starting with a new set of conditions but we already have a rich choice of both compulsory and optional programs. Of course, students will continue to receive credits for all these activities.

By striving to create the "joint degree" programmes we will drive the process of harmonization of our education systems and this will put pressure on the participating countries to change the framework conditions in favour of international education.

One of necessary changes is a deeper link between the academic environment and the non-academic one which is why we are developing cooperation with companies or city councils.  We are also looking at different education formats to go with the five challenges mentioned above. We have three years to accomplish all this, which is not much, so we’ll attempt to formulate one common international programme per challenge. After that we’ll gradually add more, shorter educational formats. We want to develop a format which we call the living lab. This could formally be a seminar. We will approach one of our partners, for example the municipal council of our capital city, to come up with a specific problem which needs solving. Then we'll make the problem the topic of the seminar. At the same time, we will invite municipal experts to participate in discussions. The outcome would be a solution to their problem. We also want to create multi-level communication forums, called academies. Regional academies would be at the lowest level - they would be a place where university staff and students communicate with a municipality or a company. The ESET company is one of our important non-academic partners, so it is more than certain that cybersecurity and the digital revolution will be among the topics discussed. These are areas where we learn something from them but they also receive some intellectual stimulation from us to direct their future development. And that's what it's all about. Helping each other grow.