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Our view on the Erasmus without Paper Initiative

Una Europa has just published a position paper on the implementation of Erasmus Without Paper (EWP) in Higher Education Institutions, together with four other European University Alliances: UNITE!, ECIU University, EU-CONEXUS and EC2U. EWP is particularly important for European Universities in our objective to build a joint digital campus.

The input and initiative for this position paper came from the Una Europa Mobility Cluster, which brings together mobility experts from across the Una Europa partner institutions. We spoke to Chair of the cluster Francesca Valente to learn more about how the paper came about, the impact of EWP and the amazing work the cluster are doing to build the interconnected, freely accessible University of the Future.

Francesca Valente, Chair of the Una Europa Mobility Cluster

Francesca, you join us today as Chair of the Una Europa Mobility Cluster. What made you decide to take on the position of Chair?

Within the 1Europe project Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna is the coordinator of the Work Package 4 (WP4), Joint innovative formats for mobility, aimed at increasing, innovating and enhancing mobility for students and staff within the Alliance. The implementation and evaluation of the activities of WP4 is supported by the Mobility Cluster, part of the project's Flexible Support Services. Because Università di Bologna is the leading university of WP4, the choice of a Bologna staff member chairing the cluster mobility was the natural choice.

When the proposal to take this position was received by the management of Università di Bologna's International Relations Office, I saw it as an excellent opportunity to put my long-standing expertise in the field towards the building of a European Campus, and to increase that expertise by being part of a group of experts working on the same field in other leading European universities.

The Mobility Cluster has been very busy since the 1Europe Project kicked off, providing support and advice on many topics.

What are the most important topics that the Mobility Cluster has been discussing in recent months?

The mobility cluster started its activities by reflecting on the definitions of different kinds of “mobility” (e.g. virtual, blended, long and short term) in order to give the Alliance some useful guidelines for the mobility paths needed to implement the educational formats foreseen both inside the project and beyond it. Then the pandemic emergency occurred. The mobility cluster has been crucial for the implementation of the virtual mobility in emergency project, aimed at offering our students mobility opportunities from home in the months of lockdown, when physical mobility was not allowed.

Beside these main activities, the Mobility Cluster has used its internal expertise to analyse the opportunities offered by the new Erasmus+ program 2021-27 as well as its challenges, as it has been for the EWP project. Another theme on the table has been cooperation with UK universities: having the University of Edinburgh as a partner, we can take advantage of their insight to overcome the difficulties related to the UK change of status with the Erasmus+ program.

" European Alliances are strongly working on becoming interconnected European campuses: a group of universities that have decided to change their way of approaching Internationalisation issues, from a unilateral approach towards a real network approach. "

Francesca Valente on the creation of a unified, interconnected European campus - the University of the Future

How did the joint position paper on the Erasmus without Paper come about?

The Una universities, as all the other European Higher Education Institutes (HEIs), started working on the implementation of the EWP project in 2019, with a deadline of June 2021 fixed by the European Commission to be ready for implementation. In Spring 2021, when it became clear that the deadline for implementation would be missed by most of the universities due to different (technical and organisational) problems, the Mobility Cluster organised a special meeting to update each other within the Alliance about the state of the project at each partner university.

During this meeting challenges and difficulties were confirmed, along with possible delays, despite the different situation of the universities: some HEIs were struggling to connect their own in-house tools to EWP, others were struggling to connect their commercial tools, and others were using Erasmus+ Dashboard. In July 2021 the European Commission released a communication stating that due to the delays experienced throughout most of the EU HEIs, the final deadline for connection to the EWP system was “within the beginning of the 2022-23 mobilities”.

In autumn, Una Europa's Flexible Support Services met and, after a brief internal consultation, it became clear that nothing had developed from the last meeting held in June, despite bilateral discussion between each university and their National Agencies. At that point, a position paper seemed to be the best way to make the EC aware of the difficulties we are experiencing and, above all, the concerns we have for the quality of service we will be able to offer to students in this transitional period, should we rush to meet the deadline.

EWP tools aim to digitalize administrative workflows for Erasmus exchange, bringing huge added value to European universities.

What is the biggest added value of EWP tools both for your institution, Università di Bologna, as well as for Una Europa?

EWP has great potential, not only to digitalize the whole Erasmus process, but also to connect all the data used for the implementation of the Erasmus+ mobility, simplifying and reducing the administrative burden not only for the Erasmus offices but also, and above all, for students. Una Europa aims to increase up to 50% the Erasmus+ regular mobility within the alliance and is implementing educational projects such as joint degree courses with strong mobility components, so the Alliance will benefit hugely from such a shared digitalization of data and workflows.

From the perspective of my university, digitalization and the unburdening of the administrative workflows is crucial for implementing and managing a high volume of mobility flows. This is why we started to digitalize the Erasmus+ workflows in 2011 through huge investment in our in-house AlmaRM tool, which has also been presented as a best practice of Erasmus+ management at national and international seminars, conferences and working groups in the last years. EWP seems to be the next step we were expecting to give added value to our investment, and we still think it will improve our current way of managing the 2000+ outgoing and 2500+ incoming students our university enables per year.

" The Erasmus without Paper is key for European Universities in our objective of building interconnected digital campuses, while reaching new levels of student and staff mobility among our partners. "

Taken from the Joint Position Paper on the Erasmus Without Paper, undersigned by Una Europa, UNITE!, ECIU University, EU-CONEXUS and EC2U

What are the biggest challenges on the ground at the moment when it comes to Erasmus Without Paper?

The biggest challenges are related to the technicalities to be overcome within the deadline. The platform seems not yet ready to manage a big flow of data; and some activities for the renewal and confirmation of the Inter-institutional agreements must be done via other channels, usually email, doubling the job of the International Relations Offices' staff. The connection of in-house systems to the EWP seems to be more difficult than expected and IT staff have inadequate support. Last, but not least, at the moment home and host universities are in most cases not using the same tool, and pushing for separate workflows for the management of students’ mobility in the short term. This impacts upon the IROs workload and, of course, on the quality of service we are able to deliver for our incoming and outgoing students.

The position paper has been shared with European policymakers to raise awareness of the difficulties that you are experiencing.

What changes would you like to see implemented in response to this position?

The main change we would like to see in response to our position paper would be the prolongation of the transitional period, at the moment applied only to the Academic Year 2021-22 and with a strict deadline for the full implementation set at the beginning of Academic Year 2022-23. We are pushing to postpone this deadline, so to include the Academic Year 2022-23 in the transitional period. This would avoid a forced reduction in the mobility offer for our students, which could arise due to the difficulties in confirming and renewing the inter-institutional agreements already in place through the traditional way of mobility management.

" Being part of a European Alliance makes European HEIs stronger. It allows us to work together as a unique higher education entity, not only in defining new strategies and educational products, but also in facing common challenges and difficulties together. "

Francesca Valente on the added value of European University Alliances at university-level

Una Europa Flexible Support Services

As one of the actions towards empowering and supporting staff to implement truly international education, Una Europa established Flexible Support Services, a permanent unit consisting of thematic clusters of professionals that work closely together in an interdisciplinary way. Each cluster consists of at least eight colleagues - one from each partner institution in Una Europa - and is a community of experts.

Currently, the Flexible Support Services consist of the following clusters:

  • Teaching and Learning cluster
  • Mobility cluster
  • IT for Education cluster
  • Student Administration cluster
  • Quality Assurance cluster
  • Legal Affairs cluster
  • Doctoral Training cluster
  • Research Coordination cluster

The teams work on a range of topics and provide support to academics working on Joint Innovative Formats in education and mobility.

Una Europa is also currently developing a virtual office for the Flexible Support Services, which will act as a one-stop-shop for advice and support.