European Universities During Home Office

European Universities During Home Office HU
The CHARM-EU project was created as part of the Erasmus+ European Universities program, a meaningful initiative of the European Commission. The alliance created between the University of Barcelona, Eötvös Loránd University, University of Montpellier, Trinity College Dublin, and Utrecht University aims to become a world example of good practice to increase the quality, international competitiveness, and attractiveness of the European Higher Education landscape. Representing ELTE Ferenc Takó, ELTE’s CHARM-EU project manager and leader of the Rector’s Cabinet’s CHARM-EU office founded in September, discussed how the pandemic affected the work of the Alliance. The interview originally appeared in Tempus Public Foundation’s Volume 5 of their “Internationalization” series.

When did the CHARM-EU project kick off and what have they achieved by March of 2020?

The project officially started in November 2019, but the Alliance begun a long-term partnership in early 2019, thus, the cooperation begun prior to the announcement of the European University application results. The joined university course launched by five countries’ five universities pose a variety of challenges. One of our most important achievements is having defined the framework of our pilot master’s program, which is intended to „test” all elements and mechanisms of the university structure established by CHARM-EU from 2021 onwards. A very important milestone was the meeting organized at ELTE in February of 2020, at which, in addition to the five partner universities, the quality assurance agencies of our countries, the ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education), the Hungarian Higher Education Accreditation Committee and a representative of the Hungarian Ministry of Innovation and Technology were also present.

How did the plans laid out for 2021 change and how did the Alliance respond to the changed circumstances?

Regarding the operation of CHARM-EU, the pandemic meant that we had to conduct our consultations online. In the first few weeks, this has challenged us, but since online negotiations became common practice, the work of the association has been smooth from an operational point of view. Originally CHARM-EU’s plan was to launch a master’s program with mobility as a key element in the autumn of 2021, so this has not yet been affected by the epidemic. However, we planned several events and programs that could only take place online but were also very successful. There were, for example, the fist CHARM-EU Days in the autumn of 2020 and the CHARM-EU Winter School in early 2021.

What were the challenges of meeting online instead of face-to-face and holding some events digitally?

The digital switchover initially presented some technological challenges, which we solved in parallel with the transition of our institutions to online education. Not only did IT difficulties arise, but we have also faced some logistical issues, such as how to share and annotate documents, and the ways to work around different time zones. At the same time, it is important to note that

from a quality perspective online consultation differs from presential meetings:

it lacks the communication tools and channels that are decisive for intercultural cooperation, but it provides certain new elements as well. Adapting to these new circumstances is not necessarily spectacular, yet their solution is a basic need. By the summer of 2020, we have managed to overcome these challenges together.

Due to the situation created by COVID-19, the colleagues of the Alliance’s member universities became increasingly busy, still, the deadlines had to be met. How could they cope with this problem?

The 1-1,5 hour meetings replacing the multi-day meetings arranged in person often immediately follow one-and-other. On the one hand, this type of work is very efficient, as there is no travel time, for example – but in many cases it also lacks time to rest in between meetings. Hundreds of colleagues from the five universities work together in creating CHARM-EU, so during the online transition, we consciously created the smallest possible operational groups so that only those who absolutely needed to would participate in the discussions. And in the days leading up to deadlines, we postponed some of the regular meetings so we could focus on the tasks needed to be completed.

How did the digitization of education help the work of the association? What good practices could Eötvös Loránd University share with other institutions?

Through our online programs, we gained important experience which we were able to capitalize on. The digitization of all institutions during 2020 has greatly contributed to the project expanding its plans under development to virtual mobilities and hybrid forms of education. In CHARM-EU, ELTE is responsible for student services, including digital services as well. The effective digital transition of the university greatly assists this work. The design process of the mobility work package, also led by ELTE, was similarly supported by related research and development projects at ELTE, such as “How Long is Too Long?” and the results of the “Teach with Erasmus +” strategic partnership. Virtual opportunities also raise a number of issues in terms of accessibility and inclusion, and the role and experience of Eötvös Loránd University as the leader of the inclusion work package was also decisive in this respect.

How can the experience gained last year be utilized in 2021?

CHARM-EU’s “Global Challenges for Sustainability” master’s program will take place in parallel on the campuses of the five institutions, with students in many cases participating in joint activities through a virtual connection. This was included in our original plans, but we improved it as a result of the epidemic.

Blended and virtual forms will play a greater role in our mobility strategies,

which, due to their complementary nature, will help to exploit the potential of traditional mobility programs, while providing a flexible, personalized, sustainable and inclusive learning path for all CHARM-EU citizens. These directives and initiatives will continue to play a major role in the European Union's programs in the coming years.

How will they be able to test the effectiveness of the mobilities in the event that students do not have the opportunity to travel abroad this autumn either?

The strategy of CHARM-EU, regardless of the epidemic situation, is to get as close as possible to the set goal during testing activities. The developers of the pilot program, of course, anticipated that the implementation of mobilities in 2021 may be limited, so we plan to implement physical mobility only from 2022. If some of the students still do not have the opportunity to participate in physical mobility, the testing will be performed with the smaller group. However, in the case of those affected by the restrictions, we test the virtual forms of mobility in order to provide the highest possible level of inclusive, intercultural experience and mobility practice.

What are the latest updates of the project and what are the next steps for the future?

Most importantly, the “Global Challenges for Sustainability” master’s degree has gained international accreditation as part of the European Approach quality assurance process. By the autumn of 2021, the process of local accreditation will take place in all five participating partner countries. In Hungary, Europe-wide exemplary legislative amendments made this process possible. Recruitment of students was in full swing at the time of this interview. In September 2021, CHARM-EU will reach a new milestone with the launch of an 18-month, challenging and inclusive program that will make mobility the norm at the five universities. In the meantime, we are intensively preparing to further expand our activities following the first project period. This is a serious challenge that can only be addressed through close cooperation, both within the Alliance and within our universities. It is a great pleasure for me to be able to participate in this work with the fantastic CHARM-EU team from ELTE.

The interview was originally published in Volume 5 of the Internationalization series of the Tempus Public Foundation, in which Nguyen Luu Lan Anh, a professor at PPK, was also interviewed. The title of this interview is: International students would require more interaction and more attention from universities.