Universities in question(s)

Prime movers in research and the transmission of knowledge, universities have for centuries been jewels in the crown and the pride of European countries. In recent years a new impetus has come from the EU, in consultation with all stakeholders, to expand their autonomy, optimize their diversity and, with new resources, mainstream them into the knowledge economy.

Proud of their traditions and the national heritage they represent, universities (here Oxford, UK) know that they need to reform and open up to the outside world. But without losing their souls. © Shutterstock
Proud of their traditions and the national heritage they represent, universities (here Oxford, UK) know that they need to reform and open up to the outside world. But without losing their souls.
© Shutterstock

With around 4000 higher education institutions and 435 000 researchers, these hives of activity in which around one and a half million people work are what are known collectively as European universities. This immense web of dissemination, transfer and production of scientific knowledge is part of the close - and often historically charged - links that every European nation maintains with ‘its’ academic system. Not that Europe’s academic world lives ‘with the windows shut’. Every country, according its capacities, has faculties, laboratories and research centres which are at once rooted in its own culture and open to the world, often with international reputations. But in the contemporary context, dominated by the simultaneous advent of globalisation and the knowledge society, EU states have sized up the changes their university systems need to make, at the time when their cost is reaching the limit of public spending capacity.

Growing challenges

On the level of teaching, universities face the double challenge of growing masses of students to educate and new calls for qualifications from employment markets. On the level of research, many indicators show European university systems to be, in general, less efficient in terms of innovation and symbiosis with the business world (and therefore economic effects, growth and employment) than their American or Japanese competitors.

Awareness of the need for a Europe-wide vision of these challenges has grown considerably over the last two decades. A fundamental step was taken in 1999 with the Bologna Declaration, initiating a process of harmonising the validation and recognition of university degrees. The EU’s Erasmus programme has also given a powerful impetus to cross-border student mobility.

But it is equally the role and place of universities as major players in research - employing about one third of researchers and providing 80% of basic research in Europe – which are the subject of a vast process of critical thinking. Certainly, the foremost unifying element in academic research has been and continues to be its active involvement in the Commission’s framework programmes. In one capacity or another, almost all universities on the continent are participating in, and partially funded by, numerous European projects in all areas of applied or fundamental research. They are also leading players in the Marie Curie programmes for the mobility of researchers, which have allowed tens of thousands of researchers to conduct doctoral or post doctoral research across Europe.

A new political vision

But it was from 2000 onwards, with the announced objective of creating a European Research Area (ERA) as a cornerstone of the new strategy for growth and employment – the so-called Lisbon strategy – that the EU began having a much more political vision of the common strengths and weaknesses of Europe’s university systems. Together with Member States and the higher education sector, the Commission has sought to articulate a joint project of modernising universities around their three core missions: teaching, research and contributing to innovation. Defined in 2006(1), the main directions focus on diversification, maximising existing excellence, a greater push for student, teaching staff and researcher mobility, and strengthening universities’ ties with business and with the expectations of society.

This approach has shaken up the historical way that universities operate. The mould in which most have developed, often over centuries, has been to provide a wide range of vertical curriculum courses covering the full range of academic learning, under the financial and programming supervision of their national or regional governments. But seen on a continental scale, the diversity of academic teaching and research programmes conceals a lack of true diversification based on specialisation and excellence. And in many cases, the vertical hierarchy of disciplines also masks the lack of linkages and bridges between them.

An essential autonomy

To get things moving – and moving they are everywhere in Europe, though not without crises, as recently in Greek and French universities – a broad consensus exists on the need for universities to be given genuine autonomy, with greater responsibility, to enable them to fully initiate policies of excellence and encourage their communities to adopt a culture of results and social contracting. The Commission stresses the need “for new internal governance systems based on the adoption of real scientific policies supported by strategic and proactive management of their human and financial resources”. Adding that “while preserving the public nature of their mission and their wider social and cultural responsibilities, European universities need to assert their role as economic actors, able to respond better and faster to market demand and develop partnerships for the exploitation of scientific and technological knowledge”.

By placing university reform and modernisation on its overall strategy agenda, the EU is filling a glaring gap by asserting its determination to evolve towards a knowledge economy, of which higher education and university research should be the leading protagonists. The sharing of experiences – both successful and problematic – serves to map out guidelines for future developments.

Research ≠ innovation

There are no magic ‘turnkey’ solutions. This applies also to the much-vaunted link between universities and innovation – a recurrent theme that has dominated most of the reports and recommendations produced over the past twenty years. As two experts in the Knowledge for Growth(2) research group point out, “public policymakers and university officials need to avoid confusing research and new inventions with innovation”. For Paul David and Stan Metcalfe(3), university research can and must obviously be a major source for innovation. But they question the role with which universities have tended to be saddled by being pushed to create start-ups and other spin-offs, and manage patent portfolios, on a model imported from the USA, where this trend is also now being called into question.

While much is made of such success stories, Professors David and Metcalfe insist that, despite calls for universities to come closer to business companies, their job is not to take over their role. For them this is a wrong path, which undermines universities’ fundamental mission to extend the areas of knowledge and to exchange innovative knowledge on an open basis with the world of entrepreneurship.

“In the long term, the necessary reform of universities has to lead to a division of labour across the entire research system, with a clear recognition that different models of university modernity are possible”, they argue. “It is not possible to shape universities’ interaction with the business world in one one-size-fits-all mould.”

Didier Buysse

  1. “Delivering the modernisation agenda for universities: Education, research and innovation”, COM (2006) 208 final.
  3. Professors at Stanford University (US) and Oxford University (UK) respectively