This October, CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences - celebrates two years since the start of activities, following its selection among the pilot European Universities by the European Commission. Since then, the alliance of eight social science universities has taken major steps towards the strategic goals of the current three-year pilot phase and beyond.
Its special focus? Offering students and (post)doctoral researchers across member campuses unique opportunities for Europe-wide learning, research, civic engagement, and collaborative work.
Innovative programmes and courses for students and (post)doctoral researchers
In the fall semester 2020, students could already take advantage of the first CIVICA academic offer: one of several joint master's courses, a new format co-designed and co-taught by faculty at two different universities in the alliance. Since early 2021, a digital course catalogue has enabled (post)doctoral researchers from any CIVICA campus to access a wide range of training opportunities across the network.
Another development was the launch of the CIVICA Engage Track, a programme that equips undergraduate students with the knowledge and skills to make a social impact in their chosen areas. The first CIVICA European Week, a key component of the Engage Track, took place online in early June. Across four intensive days, undergraduates, high school students and local companies collaborated on a social challenge.
Further cross-campus opportunities became available at the start of the current academic year. At master’s level, students enrolled in the first edition of CIVICA’s flagship multi-campus course “The Future of Europe” are working in transnational teams on EU policy issues. At PhD level, the alliance’s first summer school, on European integration, welcomed doctoral researchers in early September to Florence, Italy, to present their research and network in an interdisciplinary format.
In addition to launching specific opportunities, CIVICA members have signed new inter-institutional exchange agreements at an accelerated rate, aiming to facilitate blended or virtual international experiences against the backdrop of the pandemic. This has led to a sharp increase in inter-institutional mobility within the alliance, both at student and staff level.
Building up the European university of the future
To support virtual mobility at this scale, CIVICA universities have built on lessons learned from online teaching during COVID-19. And although the pandemic has meant a change of plans in some areas for the alliance, overall it has served as a catalyst for digital innovation. With the recent launch of an alliance-wide social platform and an internal dashboard, myCIVICA, for managing participation in courses and other activities, CIVICA’s digital campus takes a further leap forward.
But CIVICA has been contributing to transformations beyond university walls too. In line with the alliance’s mission, civic engagement is the main mode for building a bridge between academia and the rest of society. Students, researchers and staff from the alliance have teamed up to promote access to higher education among high-schoolers, students from disadvantaged backgrounds or minorities. In addition, CIVICA members take turns hosting a series of public lectures aimed at communicating research on current topics to a wide audience.
Taking stock and looking ahead
Recent achievements are outlined in a progress report submitted by the alliance earlier this year at its 18-month milestone to the European Commission. The report highlights the ways in which CIVICA spearheads a new level of collaboration in European higher education. Notable successes include a boost in mobility opportunities (virtual, blended and physical) for students, (post)doctoral researchers and staff; an efficient and reliable governance structure; and a growing portfolio of innovative programmes for the benefit of academic communities and the broader public.
“The overall coherence of CIVICA and our aspirations for European education and research have been confirmed over the first two years,” says Aurélien Krejbich from Sciences Po, the alliance’s Executive Director. He notes that CIVICA is well on its way to establish a physically and digitally connected European campus. Reflecting on the behind-the-scenes efforts, he adds: “We wouldn’t have reached these promising results without clear and full commitment to our joint mission from our partners, a very efficient coordination, and the capacity to thrive on synergies and on the expertise of our members.”
The alliance is drawing on a valuable pool of know-how and best practices as it grows its offers: currently, a 400-strong workforce of academic and administrative staff from a variety of departments at the eight campuses is collaborating on CIVICA activities. The teams are drawing on existing practices but also moving beyond them, to create a space for innovation and transnational experiences. “In this regard, the activities we launched in the academic year 2020/21 are truly and concretely cross-campus,” says Krejbich.
And this is just the beginning. Speaking about the first successes, Kate Vivian, Acting Vice President for International Affairs at Sciences Po and alliance coordinator, notes that the design and implementation of CIVICA is a long-term journey.
“We will continue to build on the joint programmes, partnerships and substantive projects created so far. Our vision remains to provide a model of the university of tomorrow, as an open space that connects knowledge and society across European borders.” Referring to the European Commission’s announced plans to roll out the European Universities under the Erasmus programme 2021-2027, she concludes: “All in all, we have an exciting upcoming year and a promising future ahead of us.”
How has CIVICA made an impact on the ground? From undergraduates to staff, meet eight members of our community who benefitted from the alliance’s activities in the first two years.
BS student in Economics and Finance
I discovered CIVICA one year ago during my freshman year. If I have to describe my relationship with it, I will definitely use the word “opportunity”: opportunity to learn from other professionals and other students, and to improve myself from different points of view, both professionally and personally.
The CIVICA European Week I attended in June definitely helped me to this goal. I worked with students and professors from different backgrounds, having different perspectives, and bringing in different ideas. Only in a diverse environment like this can we come up with innovative solutions. Through CIVICA I also joined an international community of learning, and that is exactly what I was looking for when I started my degree.
I'm facilitating the Europe Revisited research theme within CIVICA. As we started, we were given a lot of space to thematise it. It was up to the researchers across CIVICA to sit together and think through the areas that Europe Revisited should focus on. We came up with an interdisciplinary coverage of critical issues such as migration, rule of law, green values and green economy, the EU's relation to the rest of the world. We not only want the institutional stance on these issues, but also the societal one, and we want to make the topics more inclusive and connect them to CIVICA's other focus areas, working transversally.
With the added support of CIVICA Research, we are building a joint infrastructure basically from scratch and scaling it up, perhaps even as an example for other universities. We have a lot of researchers that can now circulate, collect experience and open up national academia - and that will transform the university itself, and the nature of research.
I was in charge of implementing the civic engagement work package along with other brilliant colleagues from the EUI. Our event in CIVICA’s Tours d’Europe series was a collective effort, aiming to experiment and inspire young minds across Europe and beyond. In recent years we have been thinking a lot about how to make Europe a ‘catchy’ idea for young people. We understood that if we wanted to talk to the youth, we had to speak their language, address topics at the heart of their preoccupations, use their platforms, and most importantly, let them express their views.
This is why we decided to focus on three key issues: climate change, online gender-based violence and youth political participation. Entitled ‘Not Only Erasmus’, our event was extremely interactive, in a hybrid and bilingual format, so to connect even more directly with the local community of Florence. We received very positive feedback from the attendants and we believe the event inspired other CIVICA universities to dare more when engaging with young citizens.
In the final semester of my master’s, I took part in the CIVICA course “Democracy in Crisis,” a cooperation between the Hertie School and Sciences Po. I found the course very exciting given the context of hotly debated topics today, such as the rule of law, backsliding democracy, or an angry mob in front of the US Capitol. In addition, the format of co-teaching piqued my interest.
We were all very different in the course, but the joint projects allowed us to apply our different expertise in a targeted way. I also often exchanged ideas with fellow students at Sciences Po outside of the course. For example, I applied together with a Sciences Po student for the essay competition of the futurEU initiative, open to all CIVICA universities. We were able to submit our ideas for reforming the EU treaty and we are really happy to have won the competition.
PhD candidate in International Relations
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA)
CIVICA’s early-stage researcher course catalogue helped me to gain access to academic content and researchers from the entire network. I took part in a few courses and seminars in 2021, which supported me both on the theoretical and the practical side.
An example is the course on Ethics and Research Integrity provided by Sciences Po. I was interested in seeing how I can ensure that the data I had been using in my PhD research respected the highest integrity standards. The course was built on the needs of the participants: the opportunity to send in advance the questions and to receive individualised advice from the lecturers, tutors, and fellow young researchers.
Similarly, the academic career laboratory provided by the Hertie School guided us through the job specifications in international academia and how to improve the application documentation. It was a digital workshop, but interactivity was key: peer-to-peer dialogue, cross-checks, feedback, teamwork with colleagues from other CIVICA universities.
Double Master's Degree in International Security/International Political Economy, Class of 2021
Sciences Po and The London School of Economics
I did the dual degree between Sciences Po and LSE and all in all it was great, mostly because of the different academic traditions of these two institutions. The skillsets we nurtured at the two institutions during these two years were very different and I found this to be a hugely enriching experience. Equally important was the exchange, both culturally and intellectually, with my peers. I learned a lot from them, and I learned a lot about the world, mediated through the lens of my colleagues.
This dual degree model is quite distinct from the traditional form of exchanges because of how profound the immersion in another culture is. I hope CIVICA can make this model more common and more accessible.
BSc in Business and Economics, Class of 2021
Master's student in Accounting, Valuation and Financial Management
Stockholm School of Economics
I got the opportunity to join the CIVICA project team at SSE in the beginning of 2020. Since then, I have been involved in the working groups developing CIVICA activities for bachelor and master’s students across the alliance. In addition, I was a panel member at the 2021 CIVICA dissemination conference, where I got the opportunity to discuss and share my views on the contributions of CIVICA to the future of education.
These experiences have demonstrated a principal characteristic of CIVICA, an alliance that truly values and incorporates all its different stakeholders: students, faculty, and professional staff. As a student, I have always felt that my opinions in decision-making processes have been valued as highly as everyone else's, and that our diverse set of perspectives is viewed as a key element in developing the European University of the future.
PhD candidate in Social Policy
The London School of Economics and Political Science
I am continuing in the role of CIVICA Ambassador, hoping to take further the ideas and projects we developed during the first year. Initially, a big challenge was to shape the role of student Ambassador according to what we thought would facilitate collaboration and dialogue among students and (post)doctoral researchers from our partner universities.
I established that my goal is to foster dialogue and knowledge exchange between early career researchers across the alliance who are working on similar subjects, but approaching these topics from different disciplinary or methodological angles. To achieve this, I am collaborating with Michelle Graabek, Ambassador from EUI, to develop networks of PhDs and post-docs working on issues related to migration and mobility, European integration, and sustainable development. We believe this will bring early career researchers the opportunity to present work in progress and get feedback from peers belonging to a European research community.
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