CIVICA: The Pulse of Europe

Aurélien Krejbich from Sciences Po is since 1 February 2020 the first Executive Director of CIVICA - The European University of Social Sciences. Krejbich has been involved in CIVICA since its early beginnings. In his previous role as Director of the Centre for Europe in Sciences Po’s International Affairs Division, he worked on consolidating bilateral ties with some of the future partners in the alliance. In this interview, he reflects on CIVICA’s journey and the next stage of growth.

How was CIVICA born? What is its mission?

Aurélien Krejbich: Formally, CIVICA was born on 26 June 2019, when our alliance of eight higher education institutions was selected by the European Commission as one of the 17 pilot European Universities funded under Erasmus+. However, the idea of CIVICA was born much earlier: many of the universities in our alliance had been cooperating on a bilateral basis for years by offering joint study programmes, fostering student exchanges and teaming up for research projects. Besides these existing partnerships, our universities share many similarities in terms of academic profiles and values: excellence of education, focus on the social sciences, concern for society, commitment to diversity, inclusivity and to a free and open exchange of ideas. This clearly prepared the ground for the design of CIVICA.

These values have become the foundation and ethos of CIVICA. The ambitious call for proposals of the European Commission offered us an enduring framework to take our cooperation to the next level and to join forces into a single alliance in which we nurture our shared values. We are working to make this alliance a reality at both a physical and digital level.

Our mission as CIVICA is to place the social sciences, and each of our universities, at the forefront of European higher education, and to contribute to the betterment of European society. What this means in practice: first, we will strengthen our collaboration and link education, research and innovation across our campuses. Second, we will train European and international students and prepare them for an engaged public life. Third, we will share the knowledge produced by our researchers to help policymakers and the public at large respond to the significant, pressing issues of our times, such as societal crises, climate change, the future of democracy and the European integration process. With all of this, we will emerge as a strong European and global actor with a sustainable civic impact.

What benefits will CIVICA bring to students and PhD researchers?

AK: CIVICA’s vitality comes from our academic communities, and especially from students and PhD researchers, who should benefit from these activities in very concrete ways. We want to create an open, collaborative and innovative environment that is fully at their service and that encourages their growth. Therefore, in keeping with the Erasmus+ spirit, students and PhD researchers have been placed at the heart of the project. 

Through joint activities at the bachelor, master’s and PhD levels, we will establish new opportunities such as joint courses, joint degrees, enhanced mobility (physical or digital), which will gradually increase the number of students (BA and MA) and PhD researchers who can take advantage of our European inter-university campus. 

They will also be able to benefit from access to a wide range of resources pooled by the partners, such as research and innovation tools, mentorship opportunities in other universities, and from other joint offerings, such as civic engagement and extracurricular initiatives (for example, sports tournaments and cultural events within the alliance). Overall, this will broaden their European experience and expose them to new learning environments and new communities.

We are building a structure for the future of higher education in Europe, but we want to do so in a way that meets the needs of our students and PhD researchers. Our challenge lies in carrying out most of our work on the ground and in a way that directly impacts our communities. Over the next year, we want to establish a dialogue with these different groups and involve them in developing CIVICA from the bottom up.

What are some of CIVICA's planned activities in the upcoming academic year?

AK: After a year of foundational work, the academic year 20/21 will be devoted to launching the first activities of our collaboration at all the different levels. Cross-campus teams are designing a BA track, “CIVICA Engage,” which combines academic study with a strong civic engagement component. The first joint master’s course, offered by the Hertie School and Sciences Po, starts this autumn; we are preparing for the launch of our flagship trans-European integrated course; and more will follow in spring. At PhD level, we are working on implementing the first joint PhD seminars as well as a summer school for early stage researchers. On the civic engagement side, the priority will be to promote access to higher education and bridge the world of academia with that of minorities or high schools.

Through the European Universities, the European Commission is creating synergies between education and research. One recent, exciting development is the success of our proposal CIVICA Research under the Horizon 2020 call to consolidate European Universities’ research and innovation dimension. This will significantly boost our joint research efforts, give a second leg to CIVICA and allow us to create a true scientific environment across the alliance, coupled with a robust research agenda.

As you see, CIVICA will span across all academic levels, disciplines and strategic directions of each partner. But the connecting threads are equally important: we need to develop the tools and approaches to support the scale of our cooperation. One perfect example is the digital campus, which, in the light of COVID-19, has gained even more relevance. Our teams are concentrating their efforts on a digital offer that is dynamic, sustainable and inclusive. Another connecting thread is the newly-born network of CIVICA Ambassadors: these are student, PhD and postdoc representatives who will kick-start various initiatives to bring the communities closer.

What does CIVICA mean to you?

AK: As the European University of Social Sciences, CIVICA is an educational and scientific project with a very high potential for innovation and entrepreneurial academic spirit. Building a European integrated alliance gathering some of the world’s finest institutions in their fields for the benefit of their communities and Europe at large is a very inspiring thing to do! 

More generally, the European Universities initiative can transform both European higher education and European society. There are currently 41 such pilot European University alliances, combining their strengths in education and research, and collaborating across borders, languages and cultures throughout the whole of Europe: imagine how many possibilities this opens up!

Last but not least, CIVICA embodies the importance of the social sciences, which are more relevant than ever. In the aftermath of COVID-19, universities have been called upon to actively contribute to the recovery of societies. Looking specifically at our own alliance: our expertise lies in the social sciences, which are part of the front-line response to such crises. CIVICA’s ambition is to be “the pulse of Europe,” a living laboratory of the social sciences where knowledge will be created and shared in order to anticipate, understand and respond effectively to societal challenges. In our turbulent present, CIVICA’s commitment to accessible research, borderless knowledge, international cooperation and civic responsibility couldn’t be timelier.

What is your message to the CIVICA community at the start of the new academic year?

AK: Whether you are a student, an early stage researcher, a professor or a researcher, an administrative staff member, whether you are part of Bocconi University, CEU, EUI, Hertie School, SNSPA, Sciences Po, SSE or LSE, you are now a part of CIVICA and you can benefit from increased opportunities. 

Our alliance means, by definition, collaboration at a European scale by offering students our best opportunities and by contributing solutions to the major issues of our times. By pooling our resources and coming together to pursue this shared vision, we are better prepared to tackle whatever challenges lie ahead. I am convinced that by working together we will achieve the future we want for our alliance and for Europe! I wish you all an excellent and fruitful year 20/21!

This interview was originally published on the CIVICA website – The European University of Social Sciences.

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