The 4EU+ conference held on 8 June showed the pressing need for collaboration within educational and research infrastructure.

4EU+ Conference: Learnings, challenges and obstacles in educational and research infrastructure

We should keep building on what is already there. The 4EU+ conference held on 8 June showed the pressing need for collaboration within educational and research infrastructure. Participants expressed their readiness to do so – collaborating across differences and similarities.

Representatives and practitioners of 4EU+, EUGLOH, Una Europa, CIVIS, CHARM-EU, EPICUR University Alliance and the European Commission shared and discussed experiences, challenges and best practices when they met online at the 4EU+ infrastructure conference on 8 June 2022.

Distinguished speakers Deputy Head of Unit at the European Commission Tine Delva from DG EAC and Head of Sector Research Infrastructures Agnes Robin from DG RTD, as well as 4EU+ speakers Professors Sabine Bottin-Rousseau from Sorbonne University and Bo Jellesmark Thorsen from University of Copenhagen, kicked off the 4EU+ Conference on Educational and Research Infrastructure Collaboration in European University Alliances, sharing insights on infrastructure collaborations and discussed potentials for transformative actions.

Interconnection and digitalization in education

A focal point for the educational infrastructure was to keep developing an appropriate infrastructure that does not leave people behind. To do so we need to be connected digitally and balance our educational needs between physical and digital. Our systems must be interconnected – and we need to strive to make universities connected, said Tine Delva, Deputy Head of Unit Higher Education, DG EAC. She pointed out all the pioneering work that is going on and which will keep the ball rolling even though we are challenged by different levels of maturity at the individual universities.

In the parallel sessions on educational infrastructure participants identified that we have many of the same challenges and use cases, but we don’t need to use the same systems. Several speakers noted that collaboration between Alliances to ensure interoperability of systems would be key to achieving interconnectedness. The integration of new innovative technological pedagogical tools with the use of emerging technologies such as AI in LMSs and the development of quality assessment tools are also underway. Further, challenges of creating common infrastructure goes beyond IT systems. The current regulatory barriers also need to be addressed.

In the words of Sabine Bottin-Roussau, coordinator of the 4EU+ European University Project: “Infrastructure is essential to the materialisation of our activities as it represents the campuses of our Alliances. It must facilitate our communication, both for internal cooperation within our alliance and externally, not only for teachers, researchers, students, but also for our staff, and ultimately, all organisations involved in our universities.”

Through the exchanges that took place in the parallel sessions, participants from across Alliances were able to identify a common and strong ambition and will to work with open solutions and standards, and to keep better control over the data.

Drawing the insights on educational infrastructure together 3 questions to be jointly addressed by Alliances can be formulated:

  • With all these developments in the different alliances, we are at a critical point where we have to cooperate. Are we ready to go beyond sharing and start collaborating?

  • Legal issue regarding GDPR and safe data exchange during mobilities requires a strong agreement within the universities. Can we find a way to share our students' data within our alliances to facilitate all processes?

  • Finally, will the next phase allow us to think about virtual academic development and the possibility of providing training tools for students and teachers to address the issue of digital transition and inclusiveness when offering blended and hybrid learning?

Building on experiences and adapting to needs

Infrastructure is strategic to all at Higher Education Institutions, be they teachers, researchers or students. Agnès Robin, Head of Sector Research Infrastructures at the European Commission, highlighted the 20 actions of the ERA Policy Agenda, especially action number eight about strengthening sustainability, accessibility and resilience of research infrastructures.

We should keep in mind, several speakers noted, that we don’t need to start from scratch but rather build on our many experiences and existing initiatives when it comes to a pan-European infrastructure: In the last 20 years we have developed a much more interconnected landscape with many ongoing activities and experiences that we can build on and adapt to our needs to make the best of our resources. The overall conclusion was that we need to align - not to invent a new and perfect solution. And we need to continue the work with the support of the EU Commission. This is in particular a statement that addresses the larger pan-European collaborations on larger infrastructures. The Alliances though, all had their focus on the many smaller to fairly large infrastructures they rarely share even across universities - or faculties for that matter.

The importance of an inclusive research infrastructure definition

In the parallel session on research infrastructure it was stressed that the definition of research infrastructure should be inclusive: infrastructure is more than core facilities and technical tools. It’s also social sciences, humanities and interdisciplinary facilities. And we need to open infrastructure and give access to citizens and businesses so we can share knowledge in new collaborative ways.

UNITECH was highlighted as a best practice case within research infrastructure at the University of Milan. Professor Gabriella Tedeschi presented the system in place for sharing four fairly large infrastructures at University of Milan, including a detailed schedule for fees and access rights. She stressed that UNITECH can be upscaled to offer services across the European University Alliances.

‘We have a solid experience in collaboration on pan-European infrastructures. However, universities spend massive funds on smaller and medium infrastructures. This seminar presented different innovative approaches to enhancing the management and sharing of these to increase the value for the entire ERA. While these efforts will undoubtedly improve management, we also identified forthcoming challenges and open questions’, says Bo Jellesmark, TRAIN4EU+ coordinator from University of Copenhagen, pointing out three questions:

  • As universities seek to engage actively with innovation efforts and the private sector, we need to ask ourselves if further innovations in how we manage and share research infrastructures will be called for?

  • We may also ask ourselves if we can design systems for sharing and managing infrastructure sufficiently transparent for them to actually further and ease the interaction between university research groups and private sector actors?

  • The fundamentals of Open Science will require us to develop better infrastructure for data storage, management and access, and we need to ask ourselves if we pay enough attention to these?

During the parallel sessions it was mentioned that there is a need for joint learning for managers and technical-scientific staff of identical or closely related research infrastructures. On a European level, there is common focus on countries jointly developing, operating and paying for costly, largescale research infrastructures within scientific organizations such as CERN, ESA, ESO, ITER, EMBL, ESS etc. These organizations each hire and train their own staff. Inside the larger European scientific organizations, there is also a career-path. However, some would say that on the European level there is much less focus, if any, on the training of technical and scientific staff who at university level are operating medium and smaller size research. During the parallel session on the conference it was discussed that a focus on this group of staff and their know-how through network-building and seed funding could greatly enhance the development of research infrastructures in Europe.

Intensifying collaboration between Alliances

In the concluding plenary reflections participants agreed on the necessity of inter-alliance collaboration to provide the interoperability that is essential to deliver on the ambition of European Universities.

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