Thinking: The Europe of Knowledge

Nieuws | de redactie
20 september 2011 | Frans van Vught, influential innovation thinker and former advisor to Barroso, evaluates the Lisbon process in his work “The Europe of Knowledge”. In order to catch up with the U.S. and Japan, Europe, its higher education and research institutions have to do much more.

Like in many other parts of the world, the European Union (EU)sees ‘innovation’ as a crucial response to the current globaleconomic crisis, and higher education and research institutions areassumed to be major actors in this context.

The EU focus on innovation has its own history. Since thebeginning of this century and in response to the ongoing process ofglobalisation the EU has set its own ‘innovation agenda’. In thisagenda knowledge is seen as the new strategic production factor.The creation, transfer and application of knowledge are assumed tobe of prime importance for the processes of economic and socialreorientation and development. As a consequence the EU has becomemore active and assertive in its efforts to influence the behaviourof higher education and research organisations.

Goal: Knowledge based economy

The EU innovation agenda is embedded in the broader Europeanintegration process in which since the 1950s gradually asupranational political context has been created in Europe, withthe European Council (the heads of state and government) and theEuropean Commission as the major supranational actors. In thisprocess the so-called ‘Lisbon Process’ has played a major role. Attheir meeting in Lisbon in 2000 the EU political leaders decided ona process to boost the EU’s competitiveness and growth. Theambition was to create a new European society that by 2010 shouldbe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in theworld, capable of new economic growth but also with more and betterjobs, greater social cohesion and a sincere focus onsustainability.

Already the half-way evaluation by a special high-level group(in 2005) showed that the ambitious political goals of the Lisbonsummit would be very difficult to reach. In particular the need torely strongly on the efforts of the EU-Member States and on theinvestments by business and industry was identified as a majorhurdle. So the European Commission restarted and intensified theLisbon Process, building a new, overarching partnership between theEU and its Member States. The three-year ‘National ReformProgrammes’ and the EU Community Programme were designed to jointlyspeed up the Lisbon Process.

Lisbon Process did not deliver

Now, in 2011, we have to come to the conclusion that the firstten years of the EU innovation strategy (2000 – 2010) show that theLisbon Process has not reached its goals. The objective to reach acombined public and private expenditure level of 3% GDP forresearch and development, and of 2% GDP for higher educationappeared to be impossible to realise. On these indicators the EUclearly lags behind the USA and Japan. Similarly, indicators likethe number of patent applications, the share of the 10% most citedscientific publications worldwide or the higher eduactionattainment rate also show that the EU’s innovation performance isrelatively weak. According to a recent study by the EuropeanCommission the EU suffers of the following ‘innovationweaknesses’:

  • severe underinvestment in research and education
  • relatively low higher education attainment and participationlevels
  • limited scientific and technological excellence
  • weak knowledge exchange between academia and industry
  • poor framework conditions regarding financing costs ofpatenting

Role of higher education and researchinstitutions

In a new effort to respond to these challenges the EU hasrecently embarked upon a new ten-year innovation strategy, calledthe Europe 2020 Strategy on Innovation (2010 – 2020). The generalobjectives of this second general EU innovation policy are to closethe innovation gap with the USA and Japan, to better integrateresearch and innovation processes and to create moreknowledge-intensive products and services. In more detail the newstrategy implies a large number of issues and actions in the policydomains of research, higher education and knowledge transfer. Inaddition a set of substantial EU-budgets for these domains has beendesigned.

It may be expected that in the coming years the European highereducation and research institutions will increasingly be involvedin this second EU innovation strategy. Given the gloomy financialperspectives for higher education and research in the variousnational higher education systems in Europe, the new EU budgetswill be highly attractive. Moreover higher education and researchinstitutions appear to be very interested in the the prestigerelated to participate in European programmes and projects. But inorder to be successful the European higher education and researchinstitutions will have to find the strategic answers to thechallenges that the EU is facing. The EU intends to become ’theEurope of Knowledge’ and it counts on its higher education andresearch organisations to realize this ambition. As a result theEuropean higher education and research will be confronted withmajor changes in all aspects of their existence.

Frans van Vught is Chairman of the European Centre for theStrategic Management of Universities (ESMU); Advisor to Presidentof the European Commission José Manuel Barroso; and Former Rectorand President of the University of Twente, theNetherlands.

Excerpt from LHMartin Institute and van Vught, FA 2010, ‘The Europeof Knowledge’, in D.D Dill & F.A van Vught (eds.), NationalInnovation Policies and the Academic Research Enterprise, JohnsHopkins University Press, Baltimore.

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