Discours de la Commissaire Vassiliou lors de la conférence annuelle de l'association des universités européennes
«La diversité croissante de l'enseignement supérieur en Europe (diversité des établissements, du personnel enseignant et des étudiants, ainsi que dans le domaine de la recherche) – Incidences sur la poursuite de l'élaboration du programme de modernisation de l'enseignement supérieur»
Conférence de l'association des universités européennes de Palerme
Palerme – 23 octobre 2010
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Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the invitation to address your conference. I want to seize this opportunity to discuss with you the future course for higher education; and how our universities can be the compass to steer Europe out of the present crisis.
Europe is no longer in smooth waters: the storms of the crisis have battered our economies; we risk being swamped by the rising social costs of dashed hopes, job losses, and clampdowns on public spending.
In such circumstances, investing in our young people, investing in their education is the crucial act that will put our societies back on course. Aristotle's reflection, that 'the fate of empires depends on the education of youth', rings as true today as ever.
I am certain that we can affect our fate for the better by making better use of our resources in education - in particular of our longstanding tradition in higher education, which has seen a great diversity of institutions flourish on our continent. Among them our host, the University of Palermo, whose roots stretch back into history.
But a living tradition is not cast in stone – it means change. Universities have carried the flame of learning from their earliest days into modern times by evolving with – and often anticipating – the changes in the world around.
So, ladies and gentlemen, my question today is, what should be the mission of a modern university, as we start the second decade of the 21st century?
In my vision, higher education is at the core of the economic and social matrix that defines our world. Universities are uniquely poised to shape our emerging knowledge-based societies, and are taking on new roles in order to do so.
I understand, too, that there is great diversity among these institutions, both in their orientation and scope: not all higher education institutions have had the same beginnings, or share the same history.
But in our complex world, diversity is a strength. In my view, we should invest in this diversity, addressing issues related to quality assurance, funding, accessibility and governance. And in parallel, to take forward the growing consensus on two other issues that affect every university: democratising higher education and making better use of resources.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me outline my thoughts in more detail.
We have reached a critical point. The crisis has forced us to rethink our priorities and goals. So this conference comes at the right moment: a moment when, as Member States struggle to exit the crisis, they turn to education, to help them emerge stronger and more competitive in the global market.
This is the background against which, in June, European leaders adopted our Europe 2020 strategy to exit the crisis and regain growth: growth that is "smart, sustainable and inclusive".
The key to unlocking this growth is – as ever - knowledge. To reach our goals we will need young people who are equipped to succeed in the knowledge based society. People who are competent in new knowledge and skills, people who have the capacity to be innovative and creative.
At the same time, universities serve not only individual fulfilment; they serve society. The fruits of education should be widely disseminated for the benefit of our societies, transforming knowledge into sustainable economic and social development and prosperity.
This is why last month, with my employment colleague Laszlo Andor, I presented the Commission's new flagship initiative, Youth on the Move, to devote more resources to our young people, and put them at the centre of our plans for growth.
Youth on the Move is an ambitious initiative that takes forward our modernisation agenda for universities, an agenda formulated in close cooperation with the Member States and stakeholders. The EUA has been a valuable partner throughout.
Youth on the Move addresses the issues of diversity at the heart of the modernisation agenda.
First, it recognises that we must draw more young people into higher education.
Increasingly, individuals need higher levels of skills as technology changes the world around us. Europe also needs to amplify its education capital, mindful of the fact that our main competitors – the US and Japan – are ahead of Europe in putting many more of their young people through university.
Thus, we have set an ambitious new benchmark for 2020 – to increase to 40% (from 31%) the share of young European graduates.
Youth on the Move also points to the challenges that universities face, challenges that we will address in a Communication next year:
broadening access to higher education and learning mobility, to better invest in human capital;
adapting education programmes so young people have the skills for the future;
developing a dynamic role for universities in knowledge transfer and in the innovation chain;
and profiling our universities on the increasingly competitive global stage.
Ladies and gentlemen,
If they are to be agents for change in this process, universities need to have institutional autonomy. We seek an autonomy that will allow them to make their own decisions and make better use of a variety of funding possibilities.
These arguments for autonomy are part and parcel of the Bologna Process, which the Commission fully supports. We seek to remove the rigidities that hamper new thinking and new approaches.
Many Member States have adjusted their approach. But many universities still do not have the room for manoeuvre that allows them to take charge of their destiny.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me now turn to the issue to which this conference is devoted – diversity.
As Europeans, we share an understanding that higher education is a public good. We would not be speaking of universities and Europe 2020 in the same breath, if we did not believe that universities have a responsibility to the wider community.
But this has sometimes led to the view that all institutions should be mirror-images of each other: that they should be of equal academic standing; they should represent all academic disciplines.
But our view is that higher education serves the common good best when it escapes uniformity. Yes, Europeans everywhere should have access to higher education; but not all institutions should deliver the same programmes and appeal to the same students.
It is true that we need world-class research universities. But we need excellence in every corner of higher education: we need high performing teacher training institutions, professional and vocational schools, lifelong learning centres, etc.
Let there be no mistake: in my vocabulary – and I am sure in yours – excellence does not signify exclusiveness. Our aim is not to ring-fence a tiny number of elite institutions. Instead, it is to resource every institution to find its own niche and seek excellence in its own right.
A diverse landscape of higher education also meets the need to open up access for students. We are striving to welcome more students into our universities.
We need to open doors to people who had not previously considered university as a choice; or to people who have already been at work; and to devise education programmes to meet their needs.
But diversity – whether of mission, of study courses, of students – does not mean plunging into a free-for-all. Diversity should be underpinned with solid foundations of European standards, guidelines and procedures.
This is our vision for a European Higher Education Area and a European Research Area, where we join forces and agree common approaches in order to put Europe on the global map in education and research.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I should like to comment on one more issue that is dear to the Commission, although we may not always have seen eye-to-eye with the EUA: I am referring to transparency tools – to better information about the thousands of universities across Europe.
In the days of the medieval university, a university's reputation spread by word of mouth, as scholars travelled between different centres of learning, to be taught by the world's experts.
Today, the European higher education landscape is a great deal more complex. We need transparency in order to command a full view of this landscape.
I know it can be a controversial issue, for institutions, academics and students alike. But the benefits are real.
Think of globalisation, for example. In today's global and mobile world, our universities face increased competition, at home and abroad. With a sharper profile, universities can stand out from the crowd; they can show their strengths clearly, and know where their competitive edge lies.
They can also seek out institutions with similar profiles, so as to further improve their strengths through cooperation.
Many European countries and institutions see these benefits. Take the initiative of the Nordic Council, for example: they have raised the profile of their universities in the EU and internationally by headlining their priorities in the areas of climate, energy, knowledge and innovation.
Secondly, better information will help students make an informed choice on where and what to study. They and other stakeholders – potential business or research partners, or public authorities, for example – should have all the facts at their fingertips, when choosing their university.
The Commission has supported two projects to deepen our understanding of the issue: the U-map project, to classify the diverse profiles of European higher education institutions; and the U-multirank project, our feasibility study for a multi-dimensional ranking framework. This project, to be finalised in May 2011, will help to tackle the shortcomings of existing rankings, which focus overwhelmingly on research performance.
Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen,
To conclude, I believe that the EUA and the Commission share the same vision of the mission of a university in the 21st century.
Since its creation almost a decade ago, EUA has been one of our main partners in the drive to modernise universities. By encouraging your members to be active players for change, you have helped free their potential to shape their future.
As we open a new era in higher education I count on your active and critical support, and on your continued engagement in the years to come.
As Rousseau said, 'everything [we do not have at our birth and] which we need when we are grown is given us by education.' Millions of young Europeans are counting on us to give them that education. We will not let them down.