One year of UNITE!

Pioneering the European higher-education of the future

2020/11/11

One year ago, UNITE! was selected as one of the 17 European University Alliances to pilot an entirely new concept of the European Commission towards the European Education Area of the future. Born as an Erasmus+ project, and later receiving additional funding by the H2020 framework programme, these pilot projects are laying the foundations of a solid structure that will enable the full potential of UNITE! as a European University Alliance.

Since the kick-off in Darmstadt at the beginning of November last year, decisive foundations have been laid, but above all various initiatives and projects have been launched from which students, graduates and teachers have already benefited directly.

UNITE! enables the partners to contribute their respective strengths to the alliance and can rely on many years of cooperation within the CLUSTER network. Above all, UNITE! serves to stimulate new cooperation at different levels. Creating structures is not an end in itself, but is intended to facilitate any cooperation among the partners and also to enable university members of all status groups of the partners to take the initiative in establishing new links with the UNITE! partners, exchanging ideas and initiating projects

“We are committed and enthusiastic pioneers. We are willing to find solutions and pilot activities that address the challenges of implementing the idea of European Universities. We are convinced that UNITE! – and the other university alliances – are a first step in a long-term transformation of higher education in Europe”, said Tanja Brühl, UNITE!’s president and TU Darmstadt’s rector, as one of the 4 invited key testimonials at the first meeting of Rectors of European Universities and Director Generals for Higher Education by the European Commission on November 4th 2020.

The construction of a university network and its opportunities

The essential priorities realised within this year were:

  • To set up UNITE!’s overall governance. We started with laying out the UNITE! Charter, inaugurating the UNITE! President and the first convention of the UNITE! Governing Platform in November. Since then we built our governance in further detail. The UNITE! Steering Committee gathers the Secretariat at TU Darmstadt and Key Liaison Officers (KLOs) within each partner university, as well as Task Force Coordinators (TFCs), who meet on a monthly basis
  • To establish the meeting patterns at all levels, i.e. the Taskforce Coordinator meeting. The bi-annual UNITE! Dialogues, the main convention for everyone participating in UNITE!, took place twice. Yet, we are also looking ahead to next steps before our second birthday: the first student forum during the 3rd UNITE! Dialogue in March 2021 which guarantees the students an official body beyond their current representation and involvement and the Academic Forum during the 4th UNITE! Dialogue.
  • To organise the Task Forces (TFs) of the Alliance as the main engines of UNITE!. Each focus on one area or topic, concentrating on content & innovation, they gather multidisciplinary teams across universities. The Task Forces found their fitting patterns and how to work together best.
  • To define the internal processes and structures of each partner university to make UNITE! a priority.
  • Set up the main channels and for both internal and external communication and dissemination, with multiple levels of interaction and audiences (at a local level, across TFs, addressed to specific audiences like students, etc.).
  • To establish the quality criteria and good practices of the Alliance. We formulated a framework for a common UNITE! Quality Assurance (UNITE! Quality Management Manual). UNITE! has been one of the 4 participants of the EUniQ project, which aims at developing a European approach for a comprehensive Quality Assessment of (European) university networks.

The fact that UNITE! is an alliance of seven partners, each contributing its own strengths, illustrates the range of projects and initiatives that have been made possible by the new structures. Each partner has contributed at least one event.

05 November 2019: Kick-off meeting, TU Darmstadt – UNITE! charter signed and 9 Task Forces start working

13 – 17 January 2020: First UNITE! Staff Week, UPC Barcelona – Communication and dissemination of the Alliance

11 – 14 February 2020: 1st UNITE! Dialogue in Aalto – 152 participants, most Task Forces meet for the first time in person

20 May – 03 June 2020: Webminar series on student online assessements by Grenoble INP-UGA – 198 registrations, reacting promptly to the challenges of virtual teaching in times of corona

8 – 9 June 2020: UNITE! Bootcamp, Aalto – 60 participants, Virtual Credit Mobility in Energy discussed for the first time

21 June – 10 July 2020: INSPIRED Virtual Team Project, TU Darmstadt – A former blended format turned fully virtual. 19 UNITE! students from 3 partners, 7 nations and 12 disciplines build a bioreactor to sustain a team on Mars for 2 years

July 2020: H2020 additional funding received for R&I – Coordinated by PoliTO, it aims at strengthening R&I. Starting January 2021.

June – August 2020: Virtual Mobility 4 All – Student Summer project coordinated by Aalto – UNITE! students propose a joint platform for virtual mobility as a tailored idea for the Alliance to address accessibility for special needs students in mobility programs.

June – August 2020: Digital Business Summer class, Aalto – 10 UNITE! students

July – September 2020: E4T Competitive Entrepreneurship Summer Course – Challenge-driven course for engineering students

Sept. – Dec. 2020: Virtual Credit Mobility in the field of Energy – Within 3 months an idea became a reality: 5 partners share 30 courses for their students and UNITE! students study virtually UNITE!-abroad

17 September 2020: Virtual Research Encounter – “Green Infrastructures and Nature-based Solutions in urban areas”. A bottom-up initiative of professors connecting within UNITE! with immediate profit for students, hosted by TU Darmstadt and ULisboa

29 – 30 September 2020: 2nd UNITE! Dialogue Lisbon – 250 attendants, despite its forced virtuality, joint task force meetings and several sessions co-hosted by students

29 – 31 September 2020: EUniQ site visit – UNITE! is one of four European university alliances to participate in the EUniQ pilot evaluation, thereby contributing to EUniQ’s development of a framework for quality assurance for European universities

4 November 2020: UNITE! Energy – UNITE! Energy is a serie hosted by TU Darmstadt to provide young researchers with a broad trans-European perspective of energy research and to train students in this multidisciplinary field at the same time. First session of the series started with 35 participants

12-13 November: “Learning with AI” challenge at DigiEduHack 2020 – The Aalto Online Learning team from Aalto University hosts and organises this hackathon on AI as one of UNITE! Focus areas. DigiEduHack is a series of online and offline idea-hackathons happening all around the world during two days

Adaptation potential and leadership in challenging times

Apart from these outwardly visible activities, much has been happening in the background. Especially considering the circumstances we lived in the second part of the project’s current lifetime, UNITE! showed immense adaptation potential. The coronavirus pandemic posed new challenges for higher education, forced to react and adapt in unprecedented speed. Despite these challenges, our partner universities all across Europe, some of them having undergone serious lockdowns, pushed UNITE! further ahead.

Virtual mobility was already a priority in UNITE!’s missions, given its potential and accessibility. Therefore, the pandemic presented an opportunity to actively tackle the current challenges with innovative formats that were either adapted (INSPIRED), or designed from scratch accordingly (Virtual Credit Mobility in Energy). Despite working virtually, and having some partners in serious lockdowns for weeks, we kept our enthusiasm for the vision of UNITE!. This is evidenced by the many actions led by our partner universities to address the pandemic, as well as our increasing attendance in events and growing key staff in each university.

All the highlights and challenges that UNITE! has overcome this year are fuel to the motivations of UNITE!, to continue our efforts and implication. In broad terms, our next big goals are:

  • An important first step to develop the UNITE! Virtual Campus is the development of a common moodle platform (i.e. a meta-platform that connects all our individual online learning platforms to an overarching UNITE! platform). Other online tools and functions will be further discussed an added progressively.
  • Student involvement is one of the priorities of a bottom-up network like UNITE!, which is why since June all partners have nominated student representatives that contribute to our workplan, governance, activities and events. They work in TFs, organise themselves and take part in UNITE! events or help shape them as in the Lisbon Dialogue. The next decisive step is the first student forum during the 3rd Dialogue Grenoble.
  • New Joint Programmes are being developed to take advantage of the strengths, resources and human capital of each partner university. They highlight UNITE!’s focus areas such as Energy and Industry 4.0, but also include programmes in Data Science and Biology.
  • Kick-off the Research and Innovation dimension of the European University Alliances.

We are looking forward to continuing to walk this path alongside other Alliances to of the European University Initiative to actively shape and transform the European Education Area.