“European Higher Education (EHE) fails to live up to the expectations of business and political circles in the societies in which it operates. Business and politics alike view EHE as inadequately catering for the development of all the talents who are so abundantly present in European society. EHE finds itself in the position of having institutions which provide excellent education for the mediocre students in the middle of the distribution but which do not address the needs of the best and the weaker students: the institutions fail to target the tails of the distribution of talent.
The failure of EHE to fly by its tails manifests itself in the continuing drain of one tail (the brainy one) to the USA, in the backwardness in innovation and entrepreneurship and – most importantly – in an intellectual climate which can hardly resist the current trend towards European political atrophy and dysfunctionality. To underline this last: the move towards populism and political atomism expressed in the re-nationalisation of politics in most European countries in the 21st century is hardly debated, less so confronted and absolutely not influenced by EHE. Europe is a mediocracy – a system where the mediocre prevails – and the intellectual elite has not been a party in changing that.
Why EHE fails to fly by its tails is a story of inadequate and insufficient innovation in EHE, of a growth of EHE after the Second World War from a boutique shop to an outlet twenty times bigger – but still essentially organised as an underfinanced boutique shop where a wellfinanced intellectual supermarket was needed. It is the slings and arrows, not of outrageous fortune as in Shakespeare, but of tradition and of conservatism, which have held EHE back. No-one in particular is to blame. Not the governments who by and large control EHE, not the EHE institutions themselves, but rather an overall climate in European countries of sluggish adaptation to new circumstances and a new operating environment. This climate has not only limited the adaptation of EHE. It is also found in the extent of social security commitments for the elderly, which has remained unchanged despite early signs of a demographic transition (as early as 1973!) which would warrant a turnaround.
Can EHE fly? It is not difficult to sketch the technical potential as well as the different steps, both at political level and internally in institutions, which can bring the two tails of the distribution into EHE provision. Yet to achieve this, it will be a matter of lifting EHE by the bootstraps.”
Deze beschouwing is deel van een rede van Jo Ritzen op 19 februari 2007 voor de Ierse Royal Academy. Zijn volledige essay leest u hier.