Aix-Marseille Université takes over the CIVIS Presidency: interview with President Eric Berton
Every six months a different CIVIS member university chairs the CIVIS Board of Rectors and Presidents, the highest leadership body of our Alliance. As we enter our second round of Erasmus+ funding, the role falls to Aix-Marseille Université (AMU). In this interview, AMU President Eric Berton shares his thoughts about CIVIS and presents AMU’s priorities for the six-month presidency.
civis.eu: Our Alliance is at a vital moment, closing its 3-year pilot phase and opening a new 4-year period of Erasmus+ funding. Looking back, what are you most proud of?
Eric Berton: What I am most proud of, and this should be a source of collective pride, is the fact that we managed to create a real CIVIS community. This was despite the pandemic, which forced us to work remotely for much of the time. Or perhaps it was partly because of the pandemic, which forced us to reach out to each other in solidarity. I think this is one of the things which the European Commission recognised when they approved our objectives for the future and renewed our funding.
Thinking strategically, we have managed to develop a coherent vision for CIVIS, which is based on three main pillars. Firstly, we are committed to education based on social challenges and civic engagement – this is what really give CIVIS its meaning. Secondly, we are building our interuniversity campus. And thirdly, we are developing a joint educational offer at all levels of study and including modular options, which now needs to be recognised by the authorities of our various countries.
Finally, as President of AMU, the university which coordinates the Alliance’s relationship with the European Commission, I am very proud of the work done by the coordination team here in Marseille. They have done a great job and they have built trust with all the member universities. I thank them for this. It is a source of pride for our Alliance and also for AMU.
civis.eu: For AMU, what are the biggest priorities for the years ahead?
EB: In general, I hope that CIVIS can stay agile. Until now we have been able to respond rapidly to sudden events, coordinating many universities on issues like the arrival of refugees [from Ukraine]. This agility is rare for a huge structure like CIVIS.
As for specific topics, setting up joint degrees is a real priority, although this also depends on the politicians. We need to develop our civic engagement at the international level, so that local civil society can experience the values and benefits of CIVIS. We should increase access to mobility for all kinds of students, but also for all categories of staff including administrative and technical personnel. Our work on teaching and research should converge even further, with better links between the CIVIS Alliance and its RIS4CVIS project.
Finally, we should consolidate our partnerships with Africa in a spirit of equality and reciprocity, with exchanges in both directions. We saw that reaching out to Africa attracted the attention of the European Commission, and these partnerships could become a real instrument of soft power for the European Union in Africa.
civis.eu: Over these first years, CIVIS has grown from eight member universities to 11, with six strategic partners in Africa. What is it like to work alongside these diverse institutions?
EB: I am always interested to see that the challenges for our young people are fundamentally the same in all our cities and regions. However, we have a diversity of lived experiences, which is a source of richness when we come together to find solutions. Working together also gives us a chance to get out of our daily routines and restrictions, to take a step back. It is a moment to breathe and reflect.
civis.eu: Being “engaged” is a fundamental value of CIVIS, but also of AMU. What does this mean in practice?
EB: CIVIS must have an impact on the different communities and territories where we are active. This impact must be concrete and visible. Linking our strategies for training and research can contribute to this.
Beyond our direct impact on society, CIVIS and all the European University Alliances have a fundamental role to play in fostering acceptance of the European Union among our local populations. To go beyond an abstract institution for which we vote every few years in the European elections, the EU must have something concrete to show. With these Alliances at the European level, we can say to people that you do not only have an excellent local university, but it also offers your children the opportunity to do exchanges abroad and meet other cultures. This makes the Alliances a powerful tool to promote the European Union, because a student’s experience does not only impact them. It also affects their parents, grandparents and siblings.
civis.eu: You are not only the President of AMU but also an academic specialised in mechanics, biomechanics and human movement. How are the muscles and joints of CIVIS working at the moment?
EB: Well, you always need to train, even when it is hard work. That is how you make progress, and we need to keep training on mobility and research.
To push the image further, we need to keep building up the tendons which link our muscles and our joints. Those are just as important. With this I mean the links between all the different actors and forces which make up the CIVIS Alliance. We have the big political ambitions, and we have the specific activities and programmes which implement these ambitions. But we must not forget the cogs and pulleys which connect them – those are the tendons of CIVIS. In practice this means the individuals in the political leadership of the member universities, but also all the administrative services and staff who keep CIVIS moving.
If we keep working on this, we will have more impact. We already see that CIVIS is developing a life of its own, but our Alliance is also increasingly visible in the political sphere of our various countries.
civis.eu: AMU now holds the CIVIS presidency for six months. What are the top priorities right now?
EB: Essentially, we need to keep moving on all the priorities I mentioned before. I think the priorities are the same as they were before this presidency, and they will be the same afterwards. We should take our civic engagement to the international level, and we should build equal partnerships with Africa. We need to include more staff in CIVIS mobility, which will build loyalty and commitment in our universities. And we need to better integrate our work on teaching and research.
One thing which I really want us to move forward with is the implementation of joint degrees and qualifications, no matter what legal form this must take in light of the independence of all our countries.
civis.eu: And finally, how would you personally like to contribute to CIVIS during your presidency?
EB: For me this activity is just a continuation of my work as President of AMU, because we have the same values at the level of AMU and CIVIS. One of my priorities is to convince national and European politicians of the importance of what we are doing. CIVIS should not only exist to reflect policies, but our politicians should also return the favour. CIVIS is doing a great service to Europe, so Europe needs to play its part – especially when it comes to joint degrees.