How to boost quality
“This is our typical weakness: fragmentation among various education bodies and a 200-year- long tradition of Humboldt system where the academic world is quite isolated from the outside world,” says Mr Figel to EUObserver. “Obviously, it has to remain autonomous and independent but not isolated,” maintains the commissioner, adding that more consideration needs to be given to where graduates are most needed. Making universities more relevant would also be a way boosting the likelihood of businesses investing in research and education, with the overall level of investment in Europe still lagging behind the US and Japan.
“It is clear that we will probably not reach our Lisbon goal of three percent of GDP invested in research by 2010 but there could be a rise from 1.9 percent in 2000 to 2.5 percent by the end of this decade – which still would be quite considerable.”
How to measure quality
While Mr Figel thinks the quest for more quality in Europe’s education could become the key objective of the next phase of the Bologna process – dating back to 1999 when 29 European countries signed up to it – he does not foresee an official list ranking universities according to their performance.
“Such tables are interesting and we are following them closely but we also see their shortages,” he argues, referring to the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and the UK’s Times Higher Education Supplement table. Both lists are primarily based on the evaluation of research capabilities among universities which the commissioner argues is just one aspect of education assessment.
“We have a network of independent accreditation committees and institutions evaluating the quality and some basic recommended principles on what should be considered but we cannot narrow it down to one indicator, such as citations of university staff.” Only two European universities feature among the top ten positions in both the Times’ and Shanghai rankings – the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, both in the UK.
Europe’s overall score is “good but not excellent” admits the commissioner noting that – just like in football – if the continent wants to become a world leader, it must be “more open to the outside world and give out more in support and investment” to education.
EU and universities
But all the improvements in this area must be done on a voluntary basis says Mr Figel when asked about the possibility of more EU integration in education – an area currently fully in the hands of member states. “I’m not in favour of harmonisation or putting forward solutions from above but rather in favour of cooperation among states and universities which would be open to everyone. Such solutions – if they are coordinated on a voluntarily and expert basis – are sufficient.”
For its part, the commission is planning to boost existing projects which promote mobility and student exchanges – such as Erasmus – primarily by extending its scope to entrepreneurs and artists, as well as by boosting funds for students from outside the EU. But their success will depend on national governments and their willingness to provide funds and national exchange schemes to promote student mobility, says Mr Figel.