Interview with Aurélien Krejbich, Executive Director of CIVICA
Mariusz Sielski: You have come to Warsaw to launch the CIVICA Work Pack 9 (WP9). SGH Warsaw School of Economics being responsible for identity and community matters, what are expectations of the CIVICA leadership regarding this specific moment of cooperation within the Alliance?
Aurélien Krejbich: This phase is very important for CIVICA, since the pilot stage has just ended and we are starting a new period. Two additional partners have recently joined: IE University from Spain and SGH Warsaw School of Economics (Poland), therefore several changes will happen. One of the most important modifications consists in giving more space for student involvement. There is a set of eleven work packages fixed for CIVICA, and SGH is coordinating the ninth WP9 (dedicated to 72,000 CIVICA students and early-stage researchers from ten universities of the European University of Social Science consortium). This WP9 is growing in importance.
During the pilot phase, we had a project-oriented approach built on bottom-up initiatives. Now, we are determined to give more visibility and focus on the student-body activities. And this is precisely why we have turned to SGH with our proposal to take responsibility for this set of initiatives, because it seems to be in their DNA to make students involved in governing and represented in board of all levels. There was no better candidate to take the lead in leveraging identity for all CIVICA students and early-stage researchers (ESRs).
Building an identity is a lengthy process. In practical terms, how it can be achieved within the current financial period 2022-2026?
We might be developing a CIVICA Student and ESR Board, where the students and early-stage researchers will have a voice for expressing their views, sharing pieces of advice on academic issues and the academic staff as well as on CIVICA functioning and decision-making. Actually we are operating in areas of vital interest to them, so student associations and societies across Europe are invited to connect to check if they can have common ground or shared interests. Therefore, the SGH Warsaw School of Economics looks forward to establishing a forum, where students (and organizations) can conduct exchanges and strengthen ties. Finally, we envision focusing on sporting and cultural events. By tapping into these extracurricular activities that are a part of everyday life of each university, CIVICA will reach out and engage broader audiences.
I was impressed by the level of commitments from students and colleagues gathered at SGH to discuss the new activities. The January meeting in Warsaw was also very important because many colleagues from CIVICA universities came for the first time in Warsaw and met SGH staff and students face-to-face. We discovered the campus and also discussed many issues with CIVICA’s Warsaw-based colleagues. It is crucial if you want to understand how your partner works, what the auditoria look like and who the students are.
This was my 2nd visit to the SGH Warsaw School of Economics, the first was in Spring 2022. I can feel the positive mindset here and that many people are eager to contribute positive energy and input to the Alliance.
CIVICA is a fascinating project indeed. To clarify: when you talk about a “pilot phase” you mean the whole period preceding the SGH accession from 2019 till 2022 or just few-months period in 2019 before the consortium was established? If the first statement was true, we should probably associate the two new partners joining with CIVICA maturing, should we not?
When I refer to the pilot phase I mean three years before the accession of the SGH Warsaw School of Economics and the IE University. When the project was launched by the European Commission in 2019 under the Erasmus+, the European University Initiative was considered a pilot. And as such we have been operating for the first three years of the project.
It seems however that universities were not as interested in establishing alliances as was expected. The objective set in the “European Strategy for Universities” was to get 60 European universities creating alliances and involve up to 500 institutions of higher education by mid-2024. In 2020 there were 17 European university alliances, now there are 44 involving 340 universities. Some universities withdrew from existing alliance that they were not capable of maintaining.
Let us be more optimistic. Sixteen of the 17 alliances from 2019 have been confirmed for the next period by the Commission. The level of commitment within alliances was a determining factor here. Generally, the commitments from fellow universities in CIVICA were very large. And those who submitted the proposal in 2019 were certainly well-motivated. At the end of the day, we can say that the European Universities initiative has attracted a lot of attention from the universities because it was not a one-size-fits-all approach, there was a room for diversity, and for varying goals and outcomes.
CIVICA’s success is real because partner selection has been coherent since the beginning. A serious set of pre-existing ties is required to move to such an advanced level of cooperation. For all CIVICA participants all this was in place: dual degrees, exchange programmes, research, cumulated expertise in cooperating with academic partners. Thus, it was quite natural for all those universities to re-think their open-ended approach and take it to a higher and more integrated level. CIVICA-level alliances require far-reaching integration generally not within the grasp of universities that have only just begun international co-operation. The necessary relationships are simply too complex. We benefit from lots of pre-existing ties, and that we clearly focused on social sciences. These were among the keys to CIVICA’s success.
When you are referring to pre-existing ties, how do you assess the up-to-date cooperation with Central European partners? Currently there are three CIVICA partners from CEE: CEU (Budapest-Vienna), SNSPA – National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (Bucharest) and SGH. What is the added value brought by them to the project? Will CIVICA be impacted and change as a result of these projects?
The consortium has been looking for geographical balance since its very beginning. To make sure that CIVICA would be relevant, it was absolutely key to include the partners from all regions of Europe including the East. During the pilot phase, the Central European University and us proposed SNSPA as a party. It actually brought a lot to the CIVICA spirit sharing with us its expertise, identity, institutional culture and the way it is addressing European matters. During the second phase we really wanted to include an institution that would represent Poland, the largest country of the Central Eastern Europe, and the choice the SGH Warsaw School of Economics came very naturally.
When you scan the existing institutions, you understand that CIVICA is about diversity, but it is also about excellence. Given the focus on social sciences, and that we want the top social science research institutions, there were only several potential candidates in Poland and Romania.
CIVICA’s governing bodies are composed of the representatives of ten universities. You are an executive director of CIVICA with a mission to facilitate its day-to-day functioning, while the real decision making lies in the presidential council and steering committee. CIVICA is beginning to build a governing structure composed of students. What are the expectations regarding this new entity?
The governance structure is a very delicate matter. What is especially important for CIVICA is to remain agile. It is an operating institution running programmes, our alliances not only make decisions but also implement them. Those are very important aspects and we need to protect CIVICA’s ability to make decisions and to serve as an exchange. That is why there is this delicate combination of a heavily centralized model, with one representative per institution at governing bodies (Presidents Council level). Things are similar at the Steering Committee level. At the same time, if we take the management style things are largely decentralised, because we rely greatly on Work Package leadership. Even if we try to build up a consensus, at the end of the day each WP leader has a final say.
But in cooperation and concert with others…
Yes, indeed in cooperation. But at some point, you need to decide, the upper hand always belongs to the Work Package leader for their field of activities, not to the CIVICA secretariat. Usually we find common ground, and we follow traditional European governance practices. We apply centralized measures if necessary and decentralize decision-taking as much as we can.
What we expect from the Student Board is a thorough discussion of the framework of our Warsaw meeting and kick off the WP9. At this stage the Student Board would advise us and help us in framing the activities, in disseminating information about CIVICA actions to their communities and in bridging all parts of the project.
You have been in the project from the very beginning. What would be the next step, after this phase completed? Should we focus on identity and community, once the WP9 has been launched?
I am not ready to leap that far forward yet. What I can tell you is that the pilot phase was experimental. It proved successful, but the circumstances were very specific and difficult. The Alliance was finding its footing during Brexit, under Covid-19, admittedly a series of unusual events.
And the war in Ukraine…
That came just at the end of this pilot phase, and resulted in a special situation where CIVICA can make a difference at the strategic level and the political level. I believe that CIVICA will help in providing greater, more favourable conditions for higher education institutions, and it will be a stabilizing factor where it promotes academic autonomy and freedom for its partners and beyond. On the operational level, the challenge is to make sure that CIVICA’s excellent partnerships actually deliver activities on the ground for students, faculty members and researchers.
The long-term strategy and success for the alliance is ultimately in research and the scientific dimension. My intuition is that in the field of social sciences, with the highly integrated cooperation, we could do a lot. So far, we have been paying a lot of attention to finding expected resources, and to convincing academic communities that CIVICA is an interesting project for them.
Diversity is a key word for CIVICA. The economic profile of some universities is clear in case of Bocconi, Hertie, SSE and SGH. Is this a challenge or an opportunity for the European University of Social Sciences?
CIVICA’s key priority is interdisciplinarity. Since very first days, we identified four areas and they remain the same: democracy, European integration, climate change (with ecological transition), and data in social sciences. Regarding the partners: some are highly specialized in economics, and most of them focus on social sciences and public policy. And they are opening new departments, investing in new fields. They are not moving away from their original core competencies, but they are growing activities. This trend generates even more interest and potential overlaps in a positive sense across the partners. We will continue developing those common interests and this joint research environment, with the help of the European Commission, for example they have just opened a dedicated research fund for CIVICA.
We are talking on the first day of the Chinese New Year. What are your wishes for CIVICA?
We are living in extremely complicated times. I wish that our CIVICA community remains steady and faithful to our cause, and always believes in Europe.