The University of Poitiers was the first stop on our first University Tour. We spoke with Ludovic Thilly, the Rectors’s delegate for European Networks and Coordinator of the EC²U Alliance.
What did you recently do, at work, that made you happy?
Ludovic Thilly: Actually, for the past two years and a half, we’ve been working with other colleagues from the different universities, so, seven universities. The coordination is indeed performed by the University of Poitiers, but we have together the University of Coimbra, we have the University of Salamanca, Pavia, Turku, Iași and Jena. And I must say that the most fulfilling part was to have the meetings with all the different colleagues, because there we were really working together to create a new model of what could be the University of the future.
And we were coming from very diverse backgrounds. I’m a physicist, but we had linguists, we had administrative staff, we had colleagues involved in energy related research … a real diversity of profiles, but everybody was working in the same direction. And this was indeed very interesting because we could have a sort of dialogue between disciplines, between the ways that we see the university or how it should evolve. And this was really enriching, I learned a lot, and that was indeed very very pleasant and fulfilling.
So, this is just something from academics for academics?
No, what we are proposing is to build a new model of what could be the University of the future. What I’m saying is, we really want to push all the colleagues at all levels and all the students at all levels to work together without the traditional bias of the disciplines in order to achieve responses that may help solving the challenges of today and of the future. This includes of course the climate crisis, but not only, it is also about the social side, social challenges, inclusiveness, the way to reach all the citizens, the spread of knowledge and culture, and also critical thinking, a full understanding of what is going on in our society. So, this new model, it’s difficult to qualify, but we want to reach a new way to spread knowledge with capital K.
You deal with a lot of European and national programmes, projects and co-operations. What makes this one different?
The whole concept of the European Universities Alliances is something that we have never worked on. When you look at the history of the recent European programmes, in particular investment programmes and also the research programmes, we never had the opportunity to bring complete creativity and really let our minds go in all directions.
What I’m saying is, when you read the guidelines of this new initiative, this is the first time that creativity is left in the hands of the proposers to really propose different models. And in the case of the EC²U Alliance, we decided that the main commitment of our seven universities was to create a model where inclusiveness and reaching the citizens is the main goal. And for that, we are developing series of activities that will involve students, the whole academic community, but it will also involve all the stakeholders, all the local partners, the municipalities, the socio-economic world, the student associations and other associations to bring together their creativity and forces to promote and propose new solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.
What is the concept of the ‘city university’ in your proposal?
The concept of the city-university is something that we are very involved in, here in Poitiers. Four years ago, on the occasion of one of the annual meetings of the Coimbra Group – a university association we are a member of – we decided to choose as a topic “The City and the University.” We realised that we perform a lot of activities together with the municipalities, sharing the same goal. Both want to spread knowledge, both want to engage with citizens in solving society’s challenges.
So this is the concept of the city-university, a university that has been created more or less at the same time of the city, and with ages the two have become a sort of symbiotic institutions. And this is what we have placed at the core of the EC²U Alliance, the European Campus of City Universities.
Please give some practical examples of what EC²U does.
The University of Poitiers has been founded in 1431. From the very beginning, it has a tradition of innovation, and in the particular case of this opening to the citizens and to the society at large, we are continuously inventing new ways to reach the public.
For instance for the students: We recently created what we call the solidarity grocery where we provide the students who have limited income to still have access to goods of consumption for the minimum of what they need in their daily life. Also we have decided, and this was a very strong political commitment, to open all the courses to inhabitants for free. They don’t get a degree but they have access to the courses, and this desacralized the access to higher education. The public goes to the campus, and this is not becoming a forbidden place. So these examples that we have developed at the local level, we want to promote now at the scale of the Alliance.
And, for instance, to create a sense of belonging to a single community, we will create joint sports and join cultural events for the academic community but also with access to the public. And we also want to create what we call the EC²U Forum. It’s a new concept where we put around the table the academic personnel, the policy makers, the citizens, to discuss together on what are the challenges and how to bring solutions to these. So basically what we want to create is a space for dialogue that all actors are on equal footing and can share, and can really move forward in solving the issues of today or tomorrow.
An event every six months doesn’t make a model for future universities…
What we want to develop during the pilot phase of this Alliance is indeed to test these different activities and see which ones work and which ones don’t. If they don’t work, why? Can we find remedies to these problems? And then, when the Alliance will continue to grow and develop, maybe we will create new activities while we will keep the ones which are, let’s say, the flagship projects, the DNA of the whole Alliance. So the events will continue, maybe not every six months at each university, maybe only once a year. But the idea is to really keep this commitment as long as universities will exist.
How do you translate your local activities to the Alliance?
There are really important developments to come, especially regarding the innovation transfer. All the results that we obtain from the laboratories in research, but also the new knowledge that is created, needs to be transferred to society in creation of start-ups, new enterprises and so on. So this is also one of the targets of the EC²U Alliance to create a sort of network of transfer agencies, so that we can also build a link, or bridges,, with the socio-economic stakeholders locally but then also within the whole seven regions of the Alliance.
Why should the public care about all of this?
When the European Commission launched this initiative called the European Universities Alliances, there were a lot of concerns that this would indeed become a sort of new Ivy League or new elite of universities in Europe. In the case of the EC²U Alliance, all the members have very committed to this, and this is something that is very important to me, too. We should not, indeed, create something that would be only for the Happy Few.
What I’m saying here is that we are living in times, in periods of the European history, where it is absolutely important that all the knowledge that is created at universities – because this is where knowledge is created.
What we mean about knowledge is the new education. But it is also research and innovation, and we should not forget the fourth aspect of what is called now the knowledge square, the service to society. So, universities should not be isolated and they are not, but people tend to forget this. And the whole spirit of the European alliances, and in particular the case of EC²U, is that we want to show that the universities are the places where critical thinking, where understanding the world is going on. And this should be transferred to the society so that we avoid, indeed, these awful cases of Brexit, this awful cases of people not recognising the role of science in solving for instance the climate crisis, and so on.
What do you consider the ‘European’ part of the Alliance?
So we need to bring this knowledge to the people, if the European Universities are becoming just a small club, that would be a disaster! What we want to achieve with the EC²U Alliance is absolutely the opposite. We want to test the model first be among a limited number of universities. But once we have shown that it works, we want to disseminate. We want really to share all the results, all the procedures, all what is working to transfer the knowledge to the people.
And we want to share this freely with all the other universities and higher education institutions in Europe, and even beyond. All the seven universities have their international network outside Europe. And we will choose to enrich these external links with the rest of the world, because we cannot consider that Europe is isolated on the planet. We cannot just create a small space of freedom only in Europe, it has also to spread outside. So basically what we are creating here is a space of freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of thinking, but thinking in a critical manner … And we want to spread this to the others.
What else is the EC²U Alliance about except students and mobility?
The European Universities Initiative is financed by the Erasmus+ programme. So one could believe that it is only about education for students. But as I mentioned earlier, this is the first time that we have the capacity to really be creative when submitting a European project.
And, we can really link together education, research and innovation. I think this is the first time that a European programme allows this kind of flexibility. And basically we can combine the three missions of the university, again, education, research and innovation. And to do so within the EC²U Alliance, we decided that we would create what we called EC²U Virtual Institutes that are, let’s say, laboratories without walls. So, purely virtual systems where we will gather students, teachers and researchers working on topics which are interdisciplinary and that are also based on the strengths of each of the seven universities to really bring solution and innovation to the current challenges.
We have, for the first three years, selected three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, namely, “Good Health and Well being”, “Quality education” and “Sustainable Cities and Communities”. And we are joining forces and creating this new knowledge team – in a way, these are new knowledge teams – to solve the three UN SDGs. After the first three years, we hope to address more of the SDGs, possibly all of them.
Tino Brömme spoke with Ludovic Thilly in Poitiers on February 11, 2020. Camera assistant, city guide and translator was Aymen Ben Djeema. Thanks to Emilie Lama, International Projects Manager at the University of Poitiers for organising everything and making this interview, the whole visit in Poitiers possible.