Synergies between the European Research Area (ERA) and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) have been on the research policy agenda for some time. For instance, the topic appeared prominently in the context of the review of the ERA advisory structure in 2018, when the ERAC Opinion of 21 September 2018 had asked the ERA-related groups “to foster exchanges and discussions about common policy interests between ERA and the EHEA”. 

In November 2018, research ministers confirmed the need to improve ties between ERA and EHEA. In its Conclusions on the governance of ERA of 18 November 2018 , the Council explicitly asked ERAC and the ERAC Standing Working Group on Human Resources and Mobility (SWGHRM) “to strive for better synergies between ERA and the European Higher Education Area on issues related to higher education, training, research careers and the knowledge triangle”. 

In addition, the Competitiveness Council referred to the “Paris Communiqué” of 25 May 2018 in which the Bologna Ministerial Conference encouraged closer collaboration between the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) and ERAC. In 2019, an informal exchange of views between the ERAC co-chairs and the representatives of the BFUG took place as a first response, followed by the first-ever joint conference of Directors-General for Higher Education and ERAC under the Finnish Council Presidency in October 2019 in Helsinki. It was agreed that the topic would be further developed and discussed both at the Bologna Follow-Up Group and in the future discussions of ERAC. 

In December 2019, ERAC adopted an Opinion on the future of the ERA as an input to reflections in view of a scheduled Commission communication on ERA by mid-2020. In the Opinion, ERAC recommended, inter alia, “to adopt more holistic and comprehensive policy approaches encompassing research, innovation and education (including training and skills development), in particular with respect to higher education (EHEA), where the ERASMUS+ programme and the European Universities Initiative, as well as the EIT, could be building blocks.” 

In the course of the recent informal meeting of the Competitiveness Council in Zagreb, Mariya Gabriel, the Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth introduced the term of a “European Knowledge Area” as a comprehensive approach to address education, higher education, science, research, and innovation under one heading. Germany, Portugal and Slovenia as the in-coming Trio presidency have agreed to follow a common roadmap on education, research and innovation, which will target synergies between ERA and EHEA, including the future role of European University Alliances. 

At the informal meeting of ERAC on 4 June 2020 (agenda item 4.1.), a discussion on synergies between ERA and EHEA showed that there is a need for stronger and more effective cooperation between the two areas, under the possible umbrella of a "European Knowledge Area". Synergies between the Horizon Europe and Erasmus programmes need to be strengthened, in particular in the context of the European University Initiative and the EIT.

In the discussions, the following areas and issues have emerged as the major links between ERA and EHEA:

  • human resources at universities and research organisations (e.g. recognition and rewards systems, evaluation guidelines, Charter & Code, doctoral studies, research careers)

  • research intensive universities and research organisations in the EU that carry an important responsibility for research and innovation, researchers’ education (doctoral studies) and training of undergraduate and master students 

  • the student force that is educated through research experiences at different levels of their career (in particular doctoral studies) 

  • virtual, blended and geographical mobility, mainly within Europe, but also beyond 

  • favourable framework conditions

  • European University Networks. 

On 17 May 2021, the Council of the EU adopted Conclusions on the 'European Universities Initiative - Bridging higher education, research, innovation and society: paving the way for a new dimension in European higher education'. The European Universities Initiative was launched in 2017. In its December 2017 European Council Conclusions, EU leaders had called on Member States, the Council and the Commission to strengthen "strategic partnerships across the EU higher education institutions and [encourage] the emergence by 2024 of some twenty 'European Universities'". The European Universities initiative responds to this call.

Following two pilot calls in 2019 and 2020, financed by the Erasmus+ programme with top-up funding from Horizon 2020, 41 European University alliances - involving more than 280 higher education institutions - are being established. 'European Universities' comprise at least three higher education institutions from three EU member states or other Erasmus programme countries.

With their Conclusions, ministers encourage member states and the Commission to make sure that the initiative remains central to building a European Education Area by 2025, inspiring the transformation of higher education in the EU and helping to achieve the ambitious vision of an innovative, globally competitive and attractive European Education Area and European Research Area. Amongst others, the Conclusions invite member states to take advantage of all available funding possibilities; more cooperation between education authorities, higher education institutions and stakeholders to remove obstacles to European level cooperation; exploring the need for and feasibility of joint European degrees within the alliance of 'European Universities'; a stepwise approach to joint recruitment schemes for teachers and researchers, aimed at effective “multidirectional” and “balanced” brain circulation across Europe, associated with strengthened responsible research and teaching careers, particularly for young researchers.

In order to allow member states to monitor the development of the European Universities initiative, the Council asks the Commission to report back, by the end of 2021, on the main outcomes of the mid-term review of the first alliances.