Europese universiteiten op het spel

Nieuws | de redactie
30 juni 2011 | Het Europees HO staat voor “the biggest ever crisis.” TU Delft voorzitter Dirk Jan van den Berg analyseert op de dag van de Ministerraad over ‘Veerman’ hoe de perikelen bij ons niet op zichzelf staan. “Despite much lofty rhetoric about the knowledge economy many of Europe’s national leaders disappoint badly with inconsistency and short-termism.”

In een stuk voor ’the European Voice’ (van ’the Economist’)en een uitgediepte versie voor ScienceGuideschetst Van den Berg wat de universiteiten allereerst zélf, als ookde HO-stelsels en beleidsmakers gezamenlijk moeten enkunnen doen om de noodzaak van investeren en hervormen voor eenkennissamenleving waar te maken.

Onverkwikkelijke waarheid

“The unpalatable truth is that, without far-reaching reform,many European universities risk not just being overtaken byoverseas competitors, but also being made redundant by theseadvances in the nature of education and knowledge itself.  Fartoo many European institutions are poorly structured, under-funded,and too insulated from international frontiers of bestpractice.”

De TU-voorzitter onderstreept daarbij hoe vergaand de afstemmingen samenwerking tussen zijn instelling en de collega’s in Rotterdamen Leiden zal gaan worden. Universiteiten van hun niveau en kracht”need to group together to build academic clusters of globaldistinction to create a knowledge triangle in the natural andengineering sciences, medical sciences, law, economics and businessand management.” 

U leest Dirk Jan van den Bergs volledige artikelhieronder.

‘European universities face a ‘crisismoment’

June 2011 marks the twelfth anniversary of the landmarkinter-governmental Bologna declaration, envisaged as a majorturning point for European higher education.  One of the chiefgoals of the visionary programme, signed by some 29 Europeanministers of education, was to enhance the higher educationsystem’s global competitiveness. 

Yet, just over a decade later, many European universities andmuch of the rest of the higher education sector confront theirbiggest ever crisis.  Lagging state funding, fallinginternational rankings and a challenging gap between researchoutput and the need to drive innovation-led economic growth, areall converging in a ‘gathering storm’. 

For the European economy, let alone its higher education sector,the stakes could scarcely be higher.

Lofty inconsistency

Since the world’s first formal university was founded in Bolognaover 900 years ago, Europe’s higher education institutions haveevolved alongside its politics; from feudal control and religiousrule, to a symbiotic relationship with the nation-state. Today, however, this relationship is experiencing unprecedentedstress.

For instance, despite much lofty rhetoric about the importanceof the knowledge economy, many of Europe’s contemporary nationalpolitical leaders disappoint badly with the inconsistency andshort-termism of policy and funding for universities.  Despitemany initiatives from national capitals, the sector’s potential isincreasingly unfulfilled at a time when the economic need for it tothrive has never been higher.   

This cannot continue indefinitely and the moment has surelyarrived when radical thinking is needed.  Amongst the keyquestions we need to address are:  what will the mostsuccessful universities of the future look like, and how can weensure that as many European institutions as possible are amongstbest-in-class globally by 2020?

In the next decade, the globalisation of higher education willproceed apace.  At least 3-4 poles of world excellence — ofdifferent quantity and quality — are emerging in China/India, theUnited States/Canada, Europe and perhaps Brazil and/or Russiatoo. 

Success depends on internationalintegration

Within these poles, there are already about 20 trulybest-in-class universities (several of them European) — which willprobably grow in number to about 50 by 2020.  One of the keydifferentiators is that these institutions are essentially giantglobal magnets attracting the very best students and academics fromacross the world.  Their success (including their fundingbases) increasingly depends on international integration, ratherthan national networks.

Crucially, they are not just hubs of research excellence, butalso increasingly economic dynamos with global business colonising’landing grounds’ nearby to capitalise on the surroundingintellectual capital.  This model (as symbolised by the MITand Silicon Valley examples) has long existed, but what we are nowwitnessing is a change in scale and kind. 

This should inspire Brussels, together with national governmentsand the private sector, to encourage the development of moregenuinely world-class European science and innovation hubs throughmeasures such as tax breaks, and reduced restrictions like planninglaws.  Such an approach could also promote mobility ofEuropean researchers and students – another key goal of the Bolognadeclaration.

Blue skies ánd industry

The private sector is important here as research is increasinglynon-linear, multidisciplinary, collaborative, and expensive. Partnership is therefore key and, going forwards, industrycollaboration will drive the university sector via innovation-rich,application-inspired research. To be sure, there also remains aprofound need for curiosity-driven, fundamental research supportedby government funding imperatives.  ‘Blue-skies’,curiosity-driven research is, after all, at the origin of manydefining breakthroughs in the history of mankind.

The unpalatable truth is that, without far-reaching reform, manyEuropean universities risk not just being overtaken by overseascompetitors, but also being made redundant by these advances in thenature of education and knowledge itself.  Far too manyEuropean institutions are poorly structured, under-funded, and tooinsulated from international frontiers of best practice.

Threat? Opportunity!

So what must individual European universities do to thrive inthis rapidly changing landscape?

Foremost, educational globalisation must be treated as much asan opportunity as a threat.  Example opportunities includerevenues from on-line education and distance learning, launchingbranch campuses abroad, developing (bigger) exchange programmes,and expanding recruiting offices to tap into emerging studentmarkets.  Currently, far too few European institutions areexploiting these and other potential new revenue and brand-buildingsources. 

Universities must also reform themselves internally to encourageresearch of the highest quality.  Rigid divisions betweendepartments must be scrapped, and faculty members must be givenmuch more flexibility and incentivisation to research andcollaborate with colleagues right across the world — in both thepublic and private sectors.

Moreover, while sufficient research funding must be secured fromGovernment, universities need to win greater freedom to raise moneythemselves, including through higher tuition fees.  Here,national politicians need to live up to their rhetoric and ensurethat well-performing institutions are financially secure andautonomous enough to transition into leading universities of thefuture that ultimately become less dependent on thestate. 

Delft – Rotterdam – Leiden

Those European universities with aspirations to compete in thepremier league of world universities may also need to grouptogether to build academic clusters of global distinction. At DelftUniversity of Technology, for instance, we are already seeking tocombine our engineering heritage, with the complementary excellenceof Leiden and Erasmus University Rotterdam to create a knowledgetriangle in the natural and engineering sciences, medical sciences,law, economics and business andmanagement. 

The challenges ahead are genuinely daunting, but if we surmountthem, the prize will be more world-class European universities, abetter performing higher education sector, and a new wave ofinnovation-driven growth for the continent. Thus, the key questionremains:  will Europe’s universities, and its politicalleaders, seize the opportunity, or let it slip?

Schrijf je in voor onze nieuwsbrief
ScienceGuide is bij wet verplicht je toestemming te vragen voor het gebruik van cookies.
Lees hier over ons cookiebeleid en klik op OK om akkoord te gaan