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Circle U.: continuing the transformative journey

The conference “Creating now the university of tomorrow” marked the transition from the pilot phase to the full development of the alliance

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It has repeatedly been said that developing Circle U. is like running a marathon. And that the alliance’s pilot phase has been like a sprint. The last hectic week of the first phase must have felt like a sprint warming up to a marathon, with the seventh Circle U. National Conference in Brussels and the General Assembly in Oslo.

On 23 and 24 October, UCLouvain was the proud host of the conference which closed the National Conferences series cycle and highlighted the transition to the next phase of our alliance. For the University of Pisa, there was the vice-rector for cooperation and international relations, Giovanni F. Gronchi; Professor Alessio Cavicchi, delegate of the rector for the promotion of entrepreneurial culture and innovation, and Professor Marco Abate; and some administrative staff that are part of the Alliance Work Packages.

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In the new phase of Circle U., the University of Pisa will coordinate the "Strengthening Societal Engagement" working group and, within it, will be responsible for two specific task forces: "Mapping the regional needs for an open discovery process" and "Developing, scaling up and offering innovative educational activities that equip students to contribute to societal impact."

Within the working group "Creating Interdisciplinary and Innovative Teaching and Learning Opportunities" the University of Pisa will also be responsible for two more task forces: one will deal with "Short-term blended activities", which will take on the task of organizing short courses in common with the other partners. The other task force, "Boosting the societal impact of research and innovation in the Knowledge Hubs and expanding the ERIA pilot activities for citizens and society involvement in research and innovation", will organize lectures and seminars for the involvement of citizens and society.

In the last two years, National Conferences were organised by the Circle U. partner universities with the aim to discuss the development of the European University Initiative with policy-makers and stakeholders in the field of higher education and research. The choice of Brussels as the location of the last conference of the series was symbolic in that this extended the debate beyond the national level through the involvement of European and Brussels-based stakeholders.

The conference brought together more than 150 participants from partner universities, other alliances, university networks, European stakeholders’ organisations, ministries and other public authorities, EU institutions and other partners. Together, we looked at the role of alliances in the transformation of higher education and research in Europe. How will this new transnational cooperation change the way we do teaching, learning and research? How are the various stakeholders – students, academics, straff, the non-academic sector being impacted? How can we move forward and fulfill the potential of the innovative practices being developed by the alliances?

Looking back on the alliance’s first three years, there are numerous achievements to celebrate and build on, as well as lessons learned.

A lot to be proud of

Among the prime achievements are that the Knowledge Hubs on Climate, Democracy and Global Health are up and running – addressing some of the major challenges the world is facing. The Summer Schools, ten in total and organized by the Hubs and the Chairs, have been a success two years in a row, out of which research funding proposals were developed.

The 46 Chairs have been instrumental in all the opportunities that Circle U. has provided: Besides the Summer Schools, there have been hackathons and challenges for students, seed funding for bottom-up initiatives, the Inter Circle U. Prize and Early Career Researchers forum for academics, to mention but a few. The Circle U. Student Union (CUSU) has played a significant role in shaping the alliance. And let’s not forget that this work started in the middle of a pandemic, and we expanded from seven to nine universities.


“Three years in the lifetime of our universities is almost nothing. But looking back at the pilot phase, it is really impressive how much we have achieved. Beyond the concrete realisations and opportunities developed thanks to all the dedicated colleagues, we have been able to build the conditions to make this alliance a transformative and sustainable dynamic. In the next phase, we will scale up the many existing initiatives, explore new ways of teaching, learning and working together. We will continue shaping the future of higher education and research,” says Kevin Guillaume, Secretary General.

Moving forward

Moving forward, getting common procedures and better coordination between the universities, increase the number of short-term opportunities, and scale up the offers towards students, are some of the priorities.

“One of the major tasks in the next phase will be the development of the Circle U. Open Campus, a virtual European campus serving as a single entry point to educational and mobility opportunities. This endeavor will engage a diverse group, including academic, technical, and administrative personnel, necessitating meticulous coordination,” says the Dean of the Open Campus, Prof. Eivind Engebretsen.

In Oslo to set the course

The day following the National Conference in Brussels, the General Assembly met at the University of Oslo. Rectors, Presidents and students did not only discuss the progress of Circle U. so far – and thus the finalization of the pilot phase – but they also reflected on the future of the alliance. Among many strategic topics, the General Assembly provided some decisive inputs for the global strategy of Circle U., discussed the necessity to monitor and evaluate our realizations, exchanged views on how to foster student engagement in the future and already reflected on the next funding period and the so-called “investment pathway” currently designed by the European Commission.


Rectors, Presidents and students also engaged in a very interesting discussion with Oslo Science City and further discussed the cooperation with local and regional innovation actors. Present for the University of Pisa were the rector Riccardo Zucchi and Giovanni F. Gronchi, vice-rector for cooperation and international relations.

“Our discussions have shown once again that Circle U. is very high on the strategic agenda of all partner universities. Since the launch of our alliance, we have committed to go beyond any other EU-funded project. And therefore, although the ending of the pilot phase is an important step, the rectors and presidents as well as the CUSU representatives are already looking forward to the next phase and even beyond," says Rector Vincent Blondel.

  • 31 October 2023

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