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Transformation to collapse: four futures for Europe’s universities


Foresight exercise shows implications of different geopolitical trajectories, say Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik and Thomas Jørgensen

The sense that we’re living in uncertain times is widespread. War, economic instability, artificial intelligence, migration and refugees, political polarisation and democratic backsliding—and above all climate change and the sustainability challenge—are driving change for universities, Europe and the world. But it is important to take a step back and think about the future strategically, using tools that spark the imagination, that help to envisage possible futures, prepare for different possibilities and enhance resilience.

In the past year, the European University Association has done just this, in a project called Universities and the Future of Europe. The project started as we began to put together the university sector’s key messages for the next mandate of the EU institutions, to be formed following June’s European elections. 

This is a typical activity for an organisation like ours, but it soon became something more expansive. We ended up embarking on a year-long foresight exercise into university leadership, with national rectors’ conferences, experts and student representatives, holding wide-ranging discussions on the future of Europe and our sector’s place within it. 

The outcomes of this project are distilled in a foresight report titled, “What if?”, published on 9 January. Here, we explore likely influences on the future of university cooperation in Europe in the next decade and analyse the many drivers of change—environmental, political, economic and so on. The report outlines four forecasts of possible futures for transnational university cooperation. 


More international cooperation becomes a crucial survival strategy for universities, contributing to efforts to combat global challenges, innovate and counter demographic decline. This includes increasing recruitment of students from outside Europe and expanding provision of lifelong learning. 


Geopolitical division prompts Europe’s policymakers to limit universities’ international ties, making collaboration more effortful. Climate disruption and measures to mitigate it, such as reduced travel, may also limit universities’ activities. 


Political polarisation, rising nationalism and conflict, and natural disasters linked to climate change trigger a retreat behind national borders, causing the system of cooperation as we know it today to break down amid insurmountable legal, administrative, financial and governance challenges.


EU member states respond to geopolitical, economic and demographic pressures by pooling competences and resources. This results in a two-tier system in an enlarged EU, with university alliances growing into distributed super-universities that form the equivalent of a single market for higher education. Smaller, national universities would serve local communities and not have access to EU research funds. 

The report explores concrete situations: what if the international office closes, because nationalist politics have made it irrelevant? How might a university rector handle the announcement of an ever-increasing influx of international students?

These forecasts are intended as neither accurate predictions nor normative recommendations. They are tools for reflection and creative thinking, extrapolated from the drivers of change and intended to inspire discussion.

All European universities would benefit from making futures thinking and strategic foresight methodologies part of their planning. Doing so means first examining what is possible and plausible, and developing strategies in the present to shape the future in a positive direction. 

The continent and its universities are at a pivotal moment, as the interplay between the emerging European Education Area and the European Universities Initiative, and the deepening of the European Research Area and the Bologna Process to make higher education systems more compatible, create new dynamics. 

To achieve lasting impact and shape the future in a positive direction, foresight must go hand-in-hand with strategic decision-making, in universities and at the policy level. This is why EUA has released policy messages that call for a renewed social contract for Europe and its universities. Here, the association lays out how universities and policymakers can work together to shape a strong, open and future-proof Europe. 

A new governance framework for European research and education is emerging that will shape the framework conditions for universities. 

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik and Thomas Ekman Jørgensen are, respectively, deputy director and director for policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association

This article also appeared in Research Europe