Rector Jaroslav Miller: Membership in the Aurora Alliance could be UP’s ticket on the bullet train

Rector UP Jaroslav Miller.
Photo: Vojtěch Duda
Thursday 18 February 2021, 8:00 – Text: Tomáš Franta

How could universities strengthen their positive influence on the public space and help society in a world full of rapid changes and challenges? By close cooperation on the international level and directing the results of their research into praxis. And this is why UP has become an associate member of the Aurora Alliance. Together with its eight university partners from the Netherlands, Great Britain, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Spain, and Italy, in the years to come UP and the Aurora Alliance will focus on the hot topics of the day, such as societal responsibility, sustainability, climate changes, and digitalisation.

Why is the Aurora Alliance so important for Palacký University? What does our prestigious membership in the Alliance bring to the university? What possibilities and challenges will membership open up? How will students, academics, and other employees benefit from Aurora in their personal and professional growth? And how does it tie in with the future success of universities? Rector Jaroslav Miller answers these questions – and much more – in this interview.

Palacký University has significantly been “opened up to the world” under your tutelage and has begun to deepen its internationalisation. Regarding this important strategic partnership within the aegis of the EU, what are UP’s visions and plans? Primarily, how will the EU contribute to UP’s development?

If we refrain from vulgarly reducing that question solely to one of finances, then of course by its very nature the European Union already supports international cooperation and interconnection in all forms and areas. The strategic partnership of universities in my opinion is important in at least two aspects. Primarily, it helps all partners toward qualitative growth; and secondly, it allows them to take part in truly grand consortia projects which will resolve a number of contemporary challenges. Digitalisation, sustainable development, top interdisciplinary research – these are all areas which transcend one institution and the confines of national borders.

The EU also supports the international Aurora Alliance of universities of which UP has now become an official part. Aurora has the reputation of one of the most important projects which UP has joined since 1989. What do you think is ground-breaking about our membership in Aurora?

Our membership in the international Aurora Alliance has the potential to structurally transform Palacký University and make it much more competitive in comparison to the best European and world universities – in other words, it can lead to the highest qualitative phase of development in the modern history of UP. But, of course, that depends on us: whether we take advantage of this historic chance to transform, and whether we have the motivation to become better and aim higher. This is truly a chance without precedent, because the European Commission has already demonstrated that it wants to give long-term support to the existing university alliances. That means that if we will have the determination to work on ourselves, metaphorically we are buying a transfer ticket from the local train to the bullet train. My job has been to open the doors: we either get on board, or they will slam shut in our face, to our detriment.

The historian in me adds that Palacký University Olomouc, with respect to its ambitions and a history longer than 450 years, simply should not be content with the role of a “national university”, which in my opinion is an oxymoron. On the contrary, it must transcend the narrow confines of the Czech Republic and strive for a more prominent position – among the academies of Europe and the whole world. I’m firmly convinced that resting on our laurels due to the fact that we are a prestigious university within the Czech Republic is delusive, and actually causes harm to UP.

What will the Aurora Alliance bring to our university, and what will we bring to it? What opportunities will Aurora open up for our employees and students?

Personally, I’m in favour of the idea of “symbiotic growth”, which can bring significant, mutual synergistic effects. I’m referring to connecting study programmes and curricula between the individual members, an eventual harmonisation of the systems of quality and evaluation, a shared policy of sustainability, a much higher extent of academic and student mobility than we are accustomed to at present, the use of a shared study and research infrastructure, and shared participation in grand consortia projects. By the way, we are already successful in this area, because as part of the Alliance we were granted a large EU project just last week. And I am sure that this is only the first of many. If we talk about specifics, in the future I can easily imagine, for example, a student studying their field in Olomouc, Amsterdam, and Innsbruck, and then getting a shared degree from these three universities or from the Alliance as a whole.

I’ll mention one area in which UP plays an absolutely key role within Aurora. Our university was entrusted with the coordination of partner relationships with associated universities from Eastern and Southeast Europe. This is an important part of the entire project and Olomouc has been given great leeway within it, as well as great responsibility.

Will the Aurora Alliance have a positive impact on student and employee stays and internships abroad? Will it expand opportunities for international mobilities?

Yes, indeed. Let me give you just one example. At present we are finetuning the first call for “microprojects”. The idea is to financially support trips by academics and doctoral students to any institution within the Alliance, with the goal of discussing cooperation on an academic project or in teaching. At the same time, we’re counting on foreign stays within the framework of shared praxis in management and academic administration.

Will Aurora help expand and improve academic and scientific research at UP?

The European Commission has given a clear and explicit signal that it is committed to supporting university consortia which can prove their meaningfulness, and to support them both financially and politically in the long-term – not just for the three years of existing European projects. The goal is to create closely connected university clusters which will be able to compete with American and now also Chinese universities, both in science and in modern approaches to teaching. Inside Aurora will we create tools (grants, shared infrastructures, co-projects, academic mobilities) which should lead to increased academic effectiveness for both the Alliance as a whole as well as individual universities.

Will membership in the Aurora Alliance help internal development at UP? Will it deepen cooperation between faculties, support modernisation of our infrastructure, and the like?

That depends on each one of us, on university management, faculty management, academics, and students. To take it slightly technocratically, universities in the Aurora Alliance all place somewhat higher in the global rankings than UP. That means that we have something to learn from our partners, and then to implement that within the context of Palacký University. The modernisation potential of our membership in the Aurora Alliance starts with teaching and continues through to research all the way to say, communications with the public. At the same time, it also means that our partners could learn something from us.

The universities in the Aurora Alliance are aiming their activities toward the themes of the environment, health, digitalisation, and cultural diversity. Why these themes, and how can universities help put them into practice?

I’m going to answer you a bit broadly: Universities must generally fulfil the role of the avantgarde, as institutions actively operating in the public space: articulating key themes and indicating direction. All of the areas you’ve mentioned are among the greatest challenges we face at present, and universities are institutions which have the potential to contribute to their solutions. As recognised think tanks, they have to announce their responsibilities to the world. In addition, themes like sustainability of the environment or health have long been our own at Palacký University and form a significant part of our scientific and study portfolios. The area of health is one that has been really well integrated with digitalisation here because Olomouc is one of the national centres for the development of telemedicine, and sharing good praxis forms one of the pillars of cooperation within the Aurora Alliance.

Civic responsibility and sustainability are one of the main themes of the Aurora Alliance, and UP has recently been devoting itself more and more to that topic. In your opinion, how can UP benefit the region in this respect, and how can it help on the European level?

The theme of sustainability is integral to UP. For example, the Department of Development and Environmental Studies led by Assoc Prof Pavel Nováček at the Faculty of Science is one of the leading expert workplaces working on long-term sustainability from various angles. The expert potential of that department is one that I predict Aurora will make a lot of use of.

Civic responsibility is being expressed in many ways at UP. From providing stipends to persecuted academics from Turkey and Belarus, to the UniON Civic University, to the recent establishment of a Sustainability Commissioner at Palacký University Olomouc. In the course of my tenure as rector, I’ve endeavoured to make UP more active in this area than in the past, because I am convinced that civic responsibility is genetically coded in a university’s mission. And I think we’ve been able to achieve that.

One of the main visions of Aurora is to also operate outside the university, in society…

You’re absolutely right. Aurora is based on the goal of open communications with society and articulating global challenges such as sustainability, digitalisation, and health in the context of an ageing populace. We want to conduct intensive debate on these themes in the public space and show that how we resolve these challenges will determine our future. Universities, no matter how rich and strong intellectually, are not capable of resolving these challenges on their own. Society must make itself aware of their severity and become mentally mature enough to arrive at the awareness that we are all responsible, every one of us. Universities can point the way in this respect and set the agenda.

Aurora is one of the European university alliances which the EU supports. Other Czech universities are interested in joining other alliances. At the same time, you are initiating mutual, deeper cooperation with these Czech universities. Why?

If I’m not mistaken, the EU has supported 41 consortia in total and is counting on the fact that between twenty to thirty of these (ca 150 European universities) will remain within the aegis of the EU. The European Commission will continue to support them in the long-term financially. Our goal of course is that Aurora remains one of them.

In the Czech Republic, the members of these consortia are Charles University, Masaryk University, and Czech Technical University in Prague. Recently, I initiated a joint meeting of the representatives of these universities with management at the Ministry of Education, the National Accreditation Office, and representatives from industry. We would like to reach the point where the Czech government would unambiguously declare its systemic support for these consortia, because membership in them has obvious potential to increase the quality of the entire third sector in the Czech Republic. Together with the National Accreditation Office we are going to resolve even purely practical problems: such as joint study programmes within the consortia, certifications called “microcredentials”, requalification courses which are key to flexibility in the labour market, etc. What I’m saying is that membership of four Czech universities in these consortia is important for the entire country, because it could initiate a number of fundamental structural changes even outside the academy. This is why we want to communicate with our partners and earn their support.

In conjunction with the announcement of UP entering the Aurora Alliance, you presented your visions of “global universities” – a kind of cluster of several closely connected European universities. What do you think would be beneficial about combining universities into a “superuniversity”? And won’t universities lose a part of “themselves” in this vision of fusion with European universities?

UP will always remain an authentic and hallowed Central European university. As I’ve said, I believe at the same time in integration, cooperation, in synergetic effects. Basically, I think these are the same impulses which led to the creation of the European Union. A number of fundamental contemporary challenges (climate, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, the ageing populace, etc.) cannot be resolved by nations themselves, so they must unite, cooperate, and remove obstacles barring this synergy – whether they be languages, customs controls, or even national borders. And universities should not be ivory towers standing alone and indifferent, dotting the countryside here and there. If we’re talking about university clusters in connection with Aurora, I would personally welcome the process which I call mutual growth. This comprises joint study programmes, compatibility of a system of quality and evaluation, sharing expertise, sharing research infrastructures, etc. I know it seems a bit visionary, but future development in the third sector can go in this direction, and 15 years from now in Europe we could have maybe two dozen similar university clusters which will be leaders both in research and in technological innovations, because they will be able to mobilise much greater intellectual and financial capital than individual institutions. And I am proud that Palacký University is part of this story.

What do you think the future strategy of internationalisation should look like at UP?

Palacký University should continue to remain a university open to all forms of cooperation with both our traditional and new partners. We have truly excelled in this area over the past seven years, and I can truly say that today’s UP is an extraordinarily internationalised university, making use of a dense network of partnerships. In this respect UP even has the ambition to play the role of leader in excellence in internationalisation and among institutions providing systematic help to other universities in the region.

Our membership in the Aurora Alliance is another logical step in this direction. In the future we ought to aim for a qualitatively higher form of versatile connection with universities in the alliance. Additionally, UP should develop the tools of virtual mobility, which will certainly remain in some form here even after the pandemic subsides. And I also consider as welcome the expansion of another idea – the campus in Erbil (Iraq), if the conditions allow it. We are successfully teaching one accredited study programme there already, and I know of several other departments which are interested in operating in Erbil and are ready to do so. UP in this respect is quite exceptional as regards the Czech Republic.