Note: Minor parts have been edited to improve the readability according to standard language guidelines.
Lucas – 0:08
Welcome to this episode of the NEOlogue – a podcast series created by and for NEOLAiA!
This is the first episode of the NEOlogue podcast. Together we are creating a platform to share expertise and experiences in the context of the NEOLAiA network. But what is NEOLAiA?
I am Lucas, one of your hosts for today’s episode – I am joined by my co-host and colleague. Hey Marianthi!
Marianthi – 0:33
Hey Lucas! What an interesting question you posed there about NEOLAiA! Well, actually the NEOLAiA network is a consortium of European universities. But to hear more details about its history, activities, and visions, we are very happy to welcome Sebastian. Sebastian, hello, thank you for joining us!
Sebastian – 0:50
Hello, good morning! How are you doing – it’s nice to talk to you. Nice to participate in this podcast.
Marianthi – 0:57
Thank you for accepting the invitation! Well, first things first, Sebastian. We would like to get to know you a little bit better. Could you share a little bit about yourself, please?
Sebastian – 1:05
Yeah, well I am currently the Vice President for Internationalization at the University of Jaen. The University of Jaen is the university that is leading the consortium, the NEOLAiA alliance, and we have been working for almost three years in the consortium, together with nine other universities in Europe. Now, we are part of this amazing and awesome project which is surely going to change the future and present of all these universities participating in this endeavour, in this adventure. I normally say, this is not a project, it is an endeavour, an initiative, and it is going to be strategic for all the universities participating in the alliance, in this initiative. It is going to change many things related to teaching, daily life, consortium activities, extracurricular activities, entrepreneurship, knowledge transfer – so many areas related to the higher education institutions (HEI) are involved. And with that, it is going to change at all levels of the HEI that are involved at the level of teachers, at the level of researchers, at the level of students and absolutely at the level of administrative staff and workers at the universities.
Lucas – 2:35
That sounds like NEOLAiA will actually make a really important contribution to the European HEI system. How are you personally involved in NEOLAiA? What is your function at NEOLAiA?
Sebastian – 2:50
Well, I am a member, together with the rest of the participants in the executive committee. So, we [University of Jaen] are the leading institution, we are leading the activities under the NEOLAiA umbrella. We are covering many activities, as I mentioned before. So, we are covering research, teaching, mobility, entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer, multilingual activities, a digital platform that will be connected to the activities and the initiatives under the NEOLAiA umbrella. So, I am together with the other Vice Presidents for Internationalization and the representatives of the remaining universities which belong to NEOLAiA – I am coordinating all the activities of the alliance and we are coordinating as well, the application that is submitted this year  to obtain financial support for the activities included in our project. This project is going to be very ambitious, and it is going to take four years from the first funding period. About our aim: To establish activities and to plan activities for the next ten years. So, this not a short-term initiative, not a short-term endeavour. Rather on the contrary, it is going to be a long-term commitment for the participating members, all the universities and at all levels in the next ten years.
Marianthi – 4:22
Wow, you certainly sound like you keep yourself busy Sebastian, I can say that. But about the name? What does NEOLAiA actually mean?
Sebastian – 4:34
Well, NEOLAiA was born in 2019 – the kennel of the alliance was a group of universities from Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries like Romania and Sweden. We wanted to create an alliance, a structure that gathered together this group of internationally recognized universities that have a very important role in their regions and at the same time, they are young universities; young institutions, but very committed to their environment. So, we wanted to transfer this initiative, the energy, and the willingness to change things, to modify things in our regions. But, particularly led by universities that are young. This is the most important point; we want to gather these universities that may not have a long history but proved to have a very energetic point of view in changing societies and in changing the knowledge transfer and relationships with their immediate environment. So, this is the reason why the name is NEOLAiA – NEOLAiA means “youth” in Greek and one of the major characteristics – maybe not the most important one – but one major characteristic in our consortium is the “youth” of our universities. We are very energetic; we are committed to the environments; and therefore, NEOLAiA was a very good name for it. We also have one member within NEOLAiA that is a Greek speaker, the University of Nicosia in Cyprus. We wanted to take this Greek classical intention of keeping our direction in the name of building a better Europe. But from the point of view of “youth” and from the point of view of the regions which, I think, is complimentary.
Lucas – 6:51
Sebastian, you told us about the partner universities of NEOLAiA. Which countries are we covering with the NEOLAiA network?
Sebastian – 7:04
Yeah, I think this is a very good question, because our alliance is very well balanced geographically. So, we are representing all the four regions of Europe: the northern, western, eastern, and southern part of the regions in the European Union. So, we are gathering nine universities in total, and we have representatives in the following countries:
Sweden, Örebro University
Lithuania, Siauliai State University of Applied Sciences
Germany, Bielefeld University
The Czech Republic, University of Ostrava
Romania, University “Stefan Cel Mare” Suceava
France, University of Tours
Italy, University of Salerno,
Cyprus, University of Nicosia
Spain, University of Jaén
So, we are a group of universities covering these nine countries and these four regions. The geographical balance is represented similar to the reality of the regional setting in all these different parts of Europe, which I think, is definitely one of the strengths of the alliance.
Lucas – 8:20
After establishing the network in 2019, what were the developments or what implications did you make within the network to create this contribution to the European Union?
Sebastian – 8:35
Well, the European Universities initiative was an initiative that was created by Macron, the French President in 2017. The objective at the beginning was to have a group of real universities that were working together in order to strengthen all the activities and initiatives of the universities in the 21st century Europe, so we can compete at a global level. So, the philosophy behind NEOLAiA is to create a strong alliance with a deep international cooperation that is intended to be working – not in the short run – but in the long run. We have activities planned to be working together for next seven years. So, they can transform our missions, our visions and they can transform the way we communicate with our regions and with our environments as well. And that is affecting all the activities at all levels and all layers of these activities of the universities which are forming the consortium. For example, we have a list of activities that are going to affect how we perform research and how we can communicate and strengthen our research areas in a form of a bigger and stronger cooperation among research groups. In order to better identify complementarities behind the research groups to create better, more competitive, world-class research – European world-class research. That is the result of the cooperation between these young universities which work together in the same endeavour and vision. We have a lot of plans; we have directions related to each of the activities of the universities. So, we have a work package for research, but another one for teaching to integrate more students, for example. We can consider not only the students individually, but groups of students participating and working together from different universities within the consortium. How can we put them together so that we can create a real European environment for cooperation and collaboration at a student level? That is something that is revolutionary and something we are really committed to. How can we involve the students in the teaching and learning experience? What are the activities we want to implement in order to really boost, modify, create new experiences that sometimes are going to be life changing experiences for our students? So that’s another endeavour. And we also have other directions related to entrepreneurship, outreach, multiculturalism, multilingualism, diversity and inclusion – which is going to be one of the key aspects of the European integration in this new 21st century. What are activities that we can implement as a group of universities, as an alliance, as a true European University? What can we implement in order to foster diversity, in order to create a real environment for inclusion on our campuses? These campuses are included in a very regional setting, maybe it is going to be a challenge. It is because it may be easier to bring inclusion and diversity to big cities and big metropolises. But now we have the challenge to bring inclusion and diversity to the regions and campuses that are located in cities and towns that were normally behind the big trends and the big tendencies related to globalization and related to the international influences. So, this is a challenge that is going to be at the same time very inspiring for the members of the alliance.
Marianthi – 12:38
Actually Sebastian, I find this very interesting – what you mentioned about all the goals of NEOLAiA, which are certainly not small ones, and of course come along with challenges. I was wondering about the partner universities. You mentioned that NEOLAiA is a group of young universities. So, I guess that is a common characteristic of all partners. Are there more additional common characteristics that unite partners in the NEOLAiA network?
Sebastian – 13:05
Yeah, there is a set of features and characteristics that are common to all NEOLAiA members, aside from age, as we are young universities. Second, is that we are very connected to the regional environment. We are representing the universities, the young universities, of the region. So, we are not located in big metropolises, we are not located in big cities. We have different ways of thinking, different ways of approaching challenges which are connected to our reality as regional universities. We can not see the same problems, we are not suffering from the same problems, not going through the same problems and challenges as universities in cities like big cities in Europe or all around the world. For example, we are facing some challenges related to post-industrial crisis, we are related to the population, in some parts dealing with an increasing proportion of immigration, dealing with tackling very conservative trends, for example, or with neo-populism trends that are affecting small regions or regions which are a bit apart form the international big centres of power in Europe and all around the world. So, we have many commonalities and many common features, aside from age. Our regional heart and regional connections are very involved and very connected to the challenges that are affecting our regions and our areas and that is something of importance. A third thing that is also very important as well, is that all universities have three action areas -I can talk about them later on- but these three action areas are the common action areas that we are working on, and we want to provide new solutions for. These action areas are the same for all the universities in the consortium and are related to three topics.
Lucas – 15:19
Yeah, it is really important to hear that the NEOLAiA consortium will tackle these really big obstacles, like you said, conservatism, neo-populism. All these obstacles that regional universities have to face, but also, we in Europe have to face. Could you briefly present the action areas and work packages of NEOLAiA and what their goals are?
Sebastian – 15:46
Yeah absolutely, so we have three action areas, these are named as NeoTrends, or NEOLAiA Trends. The first one is related to everything affecting digitalisation in HEI. Digitalisation has changed everything, especially after the pandemic, we approach a lot of things and ways of teaching and learning, electronic administration at the universities with digitalization. These changes are affecting the social environment, the companies related to the universities, the related public administrations. We can say a lot of things. Because, sometimes the regions in our medium-sized young universities, were not taken priorly by our governments or by the European “government”, by the regional governments as they were focusing on big areas. So, now it is time, by gathering resources, to provide answers to this big challenge, called digitalization. Now, we are stronger, we are more universities, representing more than 150,000 students in total within the alliance with more than 8,000 international students, more than 10,000 professors and researchers. That means, we have more resources to tackle these challenges coming from the digitalisation in our institutions. Putting all these resources and all of the knowledge together, with the common experience of all partners, to put them at service of the digitalisation at our institutions – creating a momentum, creating a fast-track to establish a real digitalised European consortium, a European University. The second one is Inclusion and Diversity. Many universities have been working in inclusion and diversity in the last few years, but the truth is that as a small or middle-sized young university, located in a region, you have different challenges. Maybe your background is not that experimented in inclusion and diversity policies. Maybe you have more problems, more challenges related to a more conservative setting, related to some populism or neo-populism trends which are especially vivid in our small regions or even post-industrial regions. We have to devote a different point of view, devote a different energy to try tackling these problems in a more positive and more energetic manner to implement real solutions that are not really common or have not been experienced or experimented in other places which do not have the same problems or the same setting such as ours. For example, solutions that have been working pretty well in big universities and in big cities are not the solutions for inclusion and diversity that we can implement in a small setting, because we have a different mindset, different backgrounds, social backgrounds, political backgrounds as well as different resources and at the moment. We have to create a new policy for inclusion and diversity which is more related and should be strictly linked to our reality, to the general and global one. The third one is OneHealth – OneHealth global challenges at a regional scale. The term of OneHealth is very important because it means that our health, the human health is connected to the environment, especially in post-industrial regions, regions that are suffering in some cases from economic crisis or in some other cases are suffering from some demographic crises and therefore, we should pay attention to these challenges related to health management. And there are some other implications that are coming from the “health” of the agriculture and the health of the animal industry. So, the health of the agricultural and animal industry is affecting the health of humans. We have to identify, and it [OneHealth] is a perfect setting to identify and study, how it is interconnected to the health of humans and the health of the animal environment, along with the natural environment in our regions and universities. We have to pay attention to that, and we need to create new arguments, new research tools and resources, learning and teaching resources for students for them to interpret these new challenges and how to create solutions for it. So, these are the three topics, the three NeoTrends which shape the whole work under the NEOLAiA umbrella. Digitalisation, Inclusion and Diversity and the third one, OneHealth at a regional scale.
Marianthi – 21:22
Sebastian, we have a last question for you. For this question we are going to take you to the future. We were wondering, what are visions of NEOLAiA? What is the impact that the network aspires to have achieved in the next few years?
Sebastian – 21:38
Well, that is something very important for us, because we are not, and that is for sure, applying for a project. We are applying and we will create a stable alliance for a long period that is going to be stable in the long run – for the next seven years. So, that is our aim and that is our major purpose here. We are obviously participating in the call, 2021/2022 call for the European Universities. This European Universities initiative is a call by the European Commission and if we are funded, it would be great, because we are going to have more resources, more financial resources to implement all the activities that are included in the project and all the activities related to the work packages that I mentioned before, for example, research, teaching, entrepreneurship, multicultural activities, Inclusion and Diversity, and digital platforms and so forth. But we planned activities for the next seven years, we are planning double degrees, joint degrees, for Master and Bachelor. Well, we have a brand-new NEOLAiA Focus Academy which sets off cross-sectional courses that can provide students with a very spectacular and new experience and international trends and internationally updated knowledge in areas related to the three NeoTrends. And they are putting together students in online/mixed online and face-to-face platforms, so they can work together and solve these challenges that are affecting digitalisation, Inclusion and Diversity, and OneHealth. So, we have many other activities regarding applying for common projects in relation to research, related to blended mobility, related to the implementation of what is called “blended intensive programmes”. We can provide our students with the opportunity to work together in a mixed environment of blended and face-to-face settings. They can take the opportunity to really interact with other students of the other universities in the alliance as if they were working in the same university. So, the final vision of our alliance is to become a real true European University, so that our students, more than 150,000 students we gather in total, can really interact as if they were participating in the same university, obtaining common degrees, participating in common courses, participating in interactions with international internships, international research groups, international discussion groups. We have a student network as well, so that is very important for the participation of the students from all the universities. So, we could create a real European University with the students and with the researchers and with the administrative staff cooperating at all levels of the university life. So, that is our vision for the next years. That is a lot of work, we have many directions we are currently working on. At least ten directions and ten key strategies that are implemented or we are implementing in the last two and a half years, and we are still implementing in the future and there are going to be the key, the kennel for establishing a European University foundation for the next years to come.
Marianthi – 25:29
Therefore, deep multilevel collaboration, Sebastian. Thank you very much for sharing all this information about NEOLAiA. We really got an overview of the context of the network, and we can continue to dig deeper into different aspects of NEOLAiA in the upcoming NEOlogue episodes. After all, we are just in the beginning of this journey and have a long way ahead of us.
Sebastian – 25:55
Thank you very much for your invitation, and for your willingness to create this space which, I think, is going to be really important in order to spread the aims and the philosophies of the NEOLAiA network. What activities we are developing, behind our meetings and our many hundreds of hours of work. I think it is very important to express and to spread out our mission among all the members of the universities in the network. So, I really appreciate your opportunity to explain the objectives and aims of the alliance.
Lucas – 26:38
Yes, thank you. I think we got a great impression about all the benefits and all the goals that NEOLAiA will have in the future, and we hope that it will benefit every student in Europe, but also at our partner universities.
And with that said, we hope you enjoyed the first episode of the NEOlogue. Thank you, Sebastian, thank you Marianthi! Tune in next time, stay safe, take care and bye bye.
Outro – 27:05