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Ellen Lerouge_Bert Willems_Sergio Storari

Faces of Our CommUNAty: “Our goal is student-friendly, efficient mobility.”

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Blockchain technology is helping Una Europa to realise our vision of a borderless, inter-university campus.

“But what is blockchain?”, you ask.

Early adopters Ellen Lerouge (Student Lifecycle Management Software Architect, KU Leuven), Bert Willems (Student Accounting & Mobility Coordinator, KU Leuven) and Sergio Storari (Identity Management Specialist, Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna) break down blockchain for us – from interoperability to verifiable credentials – and explain how Una Europa is seizing its potential to benefit students, professional services staff and academics across our community.

This interview is part of Faces of our CommUNAty – a series shining a spotlight on the individuals behind Una Europa.

Interoperability is something of a buzzword in higher education these days. Bert, could you explain what it means?

Bert: Essentially, interoperability refers to how systems are aligned, how systems cooporate. Within higher education, it refers to the increased collaboration and networking between institutions on a systemic level – the need to have seamless data exchange directly between the institutions in a safe and secure way. The need for our processes to be aligned, to share definitions, to have common timelines.

In essence, it refers to the need for us to share a language, while continuing to speak our different languages.

Interoperability has become a buzzword thanks to two developments: firstly, Erasmus Without Paper and the European Student Card initiative, and secondly, European Universities alliances, like Una Europa. Our ambition as an alliance is to work together on a much more structural level. We can't do that if we don't address the challenges of interoperability.

Sergio, where does blockchain come in?

Sergio: Mobility between alliance partner universities is not a straightforward process. Each university typically has its own systems and procedures. To address this complexity, Una Europa aims to create a seamless European inter-university environment. Our goal is student-friendly and efficient mobility across partner institutions, while implementing transparent administrative workflows.

Una Europa is leveraging blockchain technology to achieve this vision. Under the blockchain umbrella, various encryption technologies facilitate creation and secure exchange of documents with guaranteed integrity.

The European Commission recognises blockchain technology as a cornerstone of digital document exchange among public administrations, so it has created EBSI – the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure.

EBSI’s purpose is to enable exchange of a new kind of document called a ‘verifiable credential’ and enable cross-border services between governments, businesses and citizens. The idea is to switch from a paper version to a digital version with the same legal value as the paper document. By using verifiable credentials, Una Europa universities can issue diplomas that are cryptographically signed by the issuer and processed automatically – much faster than traditional paper-based methods.

In practice, the user – in this instance, an Una Europa student – will receive verifiable credentials from the issuer – an alliance partner university – and manage them within a digital wallet, typically a mobile phone app. The user will maintain control over their personal information: all verifiable credentials belonging to a citizen will be held in their phone, in the user’s full control.

Verifiable credentials are not limited to an educational context. Blockchain will be one of the technologies enabling exchange of verifiable credentials related to personal identity – tax numbers, social security cards, driving licenses.

Ellen, how is Una Europa seizing its potential?

Ellen: Una Europa is exploring how the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure can enhance mobility among our partner institutions as part of EBSI’s Early Adopters programme.

Firstly, we are testing the use of a verifiable educational ID to streamline access to educational services. By ensuring seamless authentication, these credentials address challenges raised by multiple logins and authentication processes.

Secondly, Una Europa is introducing simplified procedures for enrolling and coordinating exchange students. Instead of dealing with paper versions or digital PDF certificates, we now rely on universally standardised data formats. The European Learning Model serves as the basis for educational credentials, such as verifiable transcripts of records, which are very important in student mobility administration. This allows for faster processing compared to the paper-based version.

Thirdly, we are awarding students verifiable, shareable and mobile certificates, enabling them to present their credentials across borders in a secure way. By placing students at the centre of the exchange, Una Europa ensures that the individual maintains control over their personal data, which is particularly important in the European GDPR context.

" The improvements enabled by blockchain technology will allow Una Europa students to spend less time worrying about administrative procedures and more time focusing on their studies and enjoying their mobility experience. "

Sergio Storari,
Identity Management Specialist,
Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna

What are some of the hurdles we need to overcome?

Ellen: Over the next few years, verifiable credentials and digital wallets will become integral parts of our lives as European citizens. The first hurdle involves adapting the technology from a pilot stage to full-scale production, allowing us to explore how EBSI can enhance procedures for students and colleagues

We need to further standardise educational processes. How? By aligning all verifiable educational credentials with the European Learning Model, but also by introducing new verifiable credentials. Within the alliance, we have already introduced verifiable educational IDs, transcripts of records and diplomas, but expanding the range of credentials will simplify enrolment and allow even more trustworthy information to be prefilled in application forms.

We also need to foster collaboration to leverage the full potential of EBSI. We need to bring more Una Europa universities on board, attract new partner institutions, and form partnerships with third parties – employers, cultural organisations, banks, student services... We have to increase engagement with students, staff and alumni and onboard ministries of education as trusted accreditation organisations. For the EBSI ecosystem to work, we need broad adoption of the framework.

And a final important hurdle relates to legal considerations: we need a legal framework that integrates eIDAS [a regulation facilitating secure cross-border transactions by establishing a framework for digital identity and authentication] and EBSI, and the legal adoption of European Learning Model in every EU country.

It's important to stress the legal and procedural hurdles. The technological developments are very interesting and very promising, but to make the benefits of blockchain a reality for all our students and staff, it needs commitment from a lot of different actors, including from our senior management. That’s the next big hurdle to overcome.

Sergio: Our work is planting a seed, but it’s not a magic wand. To be successful, this new paradigm for digitally describing and representing information needs the effort and support of our colleagues. This is just the starting point.

What will successful implementation of blockchain technology mean for the Una Europa community?

Bert: Fundamentally, the successful implementation of blockchain technology will free our community from the burden of many time-consuming administrative processes. For students, it will remove the need to re-enter the same data every time they go to a different institution. It will also remove the need to run around from one office to another with paper, which is still happening at some institutions. It will reduce workload for staff, allowing them to focus on things like educational support and student wellbeing.

Academics and researchers are often very much involved in educational administration, too. For example, academics often have the final say on recognition of previously obtained credits an approving exemptions. They have to check files, handle papers, navigate online systems. If academics know that they can trust the credential that's coming in, it will reduce their workload.

Sergio: The improvements enabled by blockchain technology will allow Una Europa students to spend less time worrying about administrative procedures and more time focusing on their studies and enjoying their mobility experience. Here, I would like to thank my colleagues at Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna for their collaboration and support in this endeavour: the staff at CESIA [the university’s IT Systems and Services Division], its director Enrico Lodolo, and Vice-Rector for Digital Transformation, Prof. Rebecca Montanari.

Ellen: I strongly believe that the EBSI ecosystem will greatly simplify our lives. And the great thing is that it extends beyond the educational sector: it contributes to a digital Europe in general.