EUPRIANS meet in Brussels to find out
As university communications staff around Europe struggle with ever-increasing workloads, do they really have time – or the energy – to think about Brussels and the relative importance of what’s happening at the heart of the European Union?
That’s the question Nic Mitchell put to EUPRIO’s President DENIS ANCION after the association’s Steering Committee organised a ‘Meet Brussels’ event with Ulrike Reimann, Communications Director of the European University Association (EUA).
The two-day session, hosted by Belgian Steering Committee member Véronique Eloy at Bruxelles Universite Saint-Louis in November, attracted 34 participants from ten countries.
The workshops and presentations gave a fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ insight into how Brussels works and why universities need to engage more with European decision-makers and took place just before the European Parliament gave the green light to the EU’s new budget for 2014-2020. This includes extra funding for the Erasmus+ European university mobility scheme and €79 billion for the all-important Horizon 2020 research and innovation fund.
Is Brussels just for lobbyists?
But according to Denis: “Not that many communications professionals appear interested in Brussels. Why? The answer you usually get is: ‘Brussels is for lobbyists, and therefore of no interest to people working in communications’.
“I find that surprising because you are not likely to be very successful if you haven’t invested in communicating and working on the reputation of your organisation with EU stakeholders. Without that, lobbyists, including those working in higher education and research, such as EUA, would have an almost impossible task to fulfil.”
Ulrike Reimann agrees, and said: “With public funding for education and research coming under pressure in many European countries, universities are increasingly looking for additional sources of funding – and that includes competing for grants and resources from the European Union to provide the support they need to fully carry out their academic work.”
For Denis, and many others actively engaging with the EU, it is also about highlighting the added value of science and research to the economy and society.
“This can require a culture change”, said Denis. “Researchers should collaborate with communication professionals as they need to go out and find funding, and they need our support in terms of reputation building and reaching out to stakeholders.
“This shift can be a difficult one, but it will certainly help if communication professionals can show that they know how Brussels works. This would also make communication people more serious partners for researchers and other decision makers within the Universities.
Denis lists three priorities for communication professionals in this area:
• presenting the possibilities Brussels offers in internal communications
having an external profile in Brussels (which can take a number of forms (for example, participating or benefitting from the activities of regional bodies, national representations or University Associations such as EUA)
• realising that EU programmes offer possibilities (and money) to professionalise communications within universities in Europe. (But you need to know what kind of projects or acitivities the EU is looking for to be successful, e.g. researchers’ nights, PLACES ).
‘Behind the scenes’
With all that mind, Ulrike Reimann, said: “We wanted to give EUPRIO members a chance to see how Brussels works and to get behind the scenes to find out who is influencing the decision-making process on behalf of universities – and how the different stakeholders are doing it.”
“We also explained the input of EUA’s university members across Europe, and how this was crucial for formulating policies and influencing the decision making on behalf of its membership.
“In addition, our meeting with EURIO members was an opportunity to get information out about the new programmes in research and higher education which will be important for universities.”
Ulrike said the sessions tried to get across that dealing with the EU was more than just additional ‘funding’ and to explain the differences between working with a national government administration and the EU administration. It also touched on whether universities needed to adapt their strategies and the role of the communication officers.
The first day concentrated on the EU as an organisation/bureaucracy. Who are the players, who can help your university get access to the right people and proper channels for funding? How can we use the relationship between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council more effectively? Whose position has changed over the last few years and what is the impact of this change for universities in Europe?
The second day was a briefing day for communication specialists covering higher education and research/science policy issues. The focus was on the new EU programmes for education and research, and explained what has changed compared with earlier programmes and provided some insight into Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020.
Ulrike said the speakers represented the EUA, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Directorate-General (DG) for Education and Culture and the DG Research and Innovation.
“I think we might do it again for people that are really interested in this topic at one of our EUA conferences and for different target groups. But I agree with Denis that not everyone working in university communications understands the relevance of working with Brussels or is interested in this area of work.”
Final word to Denis Ancion, who thanked Ulrike and others involved in organising the ‘Meet Brussels’ sessions. He said: “We know far more is needed to improve the connection between Brussels and university communicators and that this was only a small step. I think the EUA has an important role in pointing out to university rectors the importance of intensifying communications activities on the Brussels issue, and maybe even organising meetings where rectors and communication professionals join together to get an insight in what needs to be done.”
Words: Nic Mitchell Photos: Véronique Eloy