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Vanessa Debiais-Sainton: I am impressed by the originality and level of ambition


April 21, 2020

Vanessa Debiais-Sainton: I am impressed by the originality and level of ambition


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In 2017 the EU leaders outlined a vision for education and culture together with the number of actions, including the emergence of the European Universities. First calls for proposals under the Erasmus+ Programme has been issued since then. The ECIU University was one of the proposals chosen by the European Commission. Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, Head of the Unit in charge of Higher Education Policies and Programme at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, answers five questions about the new European Universities initiative.

 In your opinion, why is it important to create new European Universities?

‘Europe and the world are facing unparalleled environmental, technological and societal transitions and fast-changing labour market. This requires a smart transformation of our higher education institutions. High performance in higher education is an essential vehicle for successful evolution in Europe. We know that the big solutions require a much stronger transnational and transdisciplinary cooperation at European level. There is a huge untapped potential in this respect today. And that is exactly what the “European Universities initiative” is boosting. Launched under the Erasmus+ Programme, European Universities are real game changers. They bring together the excellence existing in different parts of Europe, in different types of higher education institutions, sometimes existing as a niche, to make it flourish. By pooling together, they will increase their attractiveness and competitiveness on a worldwide scene and pave the way for the creation of a European Education Area by 2030.’


What should be the main characteristics of European Universities?

‘We expect the European Universities to develop a shared and common strategy for education and, where relevant, for research and innovation, towards a long-term vision on the universities they want to become together in 10 or 20 years. Implementing this long-term strategy will lead to the structural, systemic and sustainable transformation of the participating higher education institutions. Based on these deeper levels of cooperation, the European Universities will create European inter-university campuses allowing students to be mobile and benefit from a wider range of learning opportunities through a modular and flexible curriculum among the members of the alliance and get a European degree.’


And what should be the main objectives of these future universities?

‘To empower students to be the actors of their own learning experience, by choosing what, where and when to learn within a sound and guided European curriculum, supported by the newly available technologies. Another essential characteristic is the implementation of a challenge-based approach. Students from different countries and different disciplines co-create solutions together with academics, researchers and local companies to the biggest challenges of our time. The main objective here is to ensure that higher education contributes as much as possible to the wellbeing of our societies. The realisation of these ambitious objectives can be a major change for many universities and a big challenge that requires a real progressive transformation. I am confident that the higher education institutions will effectively tackle this ambitious challenge by pooling together their resources, ideas and knowledge and not being afraid to dream big. I would say that this kind of spirit of cooperation, innovation and ambition is the main characteristic of the European Universities.’


How does the ECIU University fit this profile?

‘The ECIU University fits this profile very well. While all European Universities are working towards the same objectives, each alliance has developed its unique strategy to achieve them. The ECIU University is no exception, and I am impressed by the originality and level of ambition of your ground-breaking vision. Allowing each student to define their own learning path will undoubtedly empower them, boost their confidence and self-esteem and make them become active and engaged citizens that can each uniquely contribute to society.

I also see a great potential in your micro-credentials model to allow professionals to enhance their skills when needed and hence contributing to a smart upskill and re-skill of Europe´s workforce. And I appreciate your challenge-based approach with strong links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For me, this is exactly what the universities of the future should be about, playing an active role in positively shaping our future world.’


How would you define ‘a successful European University’?

‘I want to stress the great importance of involving the whole university in this transformation. Indeed, the success will depend on how much the selected European Universities manage, from the very beginning, to involve as many students and staff as possible. This needs to be done at all levels of these institutions, including all faculties, to achieve a structural, systemic and sustainable impact.

The voice of the students is also vital and must help shape the vision of the European Universities; we must remember that it is their future we are preparing for. Higher education institutions will also need strong partnerships with business and civil society to deliver their key missions that form the knowledge square: strong education and research leading to innovation and service to society. And they can only succeed if there is support, politically and financially, at regional, national and European levels. The Commission will work together with the Member States to remove any barriers to make these European Universities a reality. We count on all of you to tell us how we can best help you.’



Vanessa Debiais-Sainton is Head of the Unit in charge of Higher Education policies and programme at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture. The unit is the lead service for European policies on reform and modernisation of higher education, the new European Universities initiative, automatic mutual recognition of higher education qualifications, the creation of the EU student card, and the higher education strand of Erasmus+. In previous posts in the European Commission, Vanessa has worked in DG Research and Innovation. Before moving to the European Commission in 2006, Vanessa spent eight years working for several petroleum and chemical companies.

ECIU University is an EU-funded collaboration between 13 universities in the ECIU network. It aims to pilot an innovative, challenge-based university model.

A shorter version of these interviews previously appeared in ECIU University Magazine, March 2020

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