‘Spoon-feeding universities’ will lose out

Nieuws | de redactie
4 september 2013 | It is up to ‘the Maastricht generation’ to save the future of universities and pull the European economy out of the abyss of despair. At the opening of the academic year European Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn clung to the students of Maastricht for hope.

“The Maastricht Treaty broke new ground. It created the European Union, established European citizenship and led to the creation of the Euro. It was clearly one of the most important milestones in the history of the EU. Many of the students here today were born within a year or two of 1992. I know that Luc Soete has suggested that you could be called the ‘Maastricht Generation’.”

“You represent the very best in Europe. You’re more connected, more international and tech savvy than we are”, Geoghegan-Quinn said. “That’s why, today more than ever, it’s young people who can show us the way forward. But today’s young people will face tough challenges, tougher perhaps than those faced by previous generations.”

“The signs of economic growth remain fragile and the averages hide important differences between different Member States; Europe is out of intensive care, but still needs intensive monitoring and medication.”

Losing motivation for reform

“There may be signs of recovery, but no one can claim that we have resolved the fundamental problems in our economies. We haven’t. Indeed, I worry that, if the economy doesn’t show some kind of upturn, people might lose all motivation for reform”, feared the European Commissioner.

The opening of the academic year was a good opportunity for Geoghegan-Quinn to highlight what universities can do to empower ‘the Maastricht generation’. Geoghegan-Quinn: “To play that role effectively universities need to change, they have to rethink the way thy operate. There are big challenges ahead. The MOOCs are revolutionizing higher education, big data is transforming the scope and scale of research. So, how should European universities respond to these developments?”

Hanging on to impact

Research topped the Commissioner’s list of priorities. “Europe performs well; we produce more scientific publications than any other part of the world. However, when it comes to the most cited publications, in other words the upper end of quality and relevance, we are falling slightly behind the US, particularly in fast moving new fields.”

“That is why, despite some opposition, I insisted that, in the EU’s new research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, funding would continue to be awarded on the basis of excellence and impact. Member States should do the same thing”, said Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn.

Not yet existing jobs

The quality of teaching was the second point that Geoghegan-Quinn referred to. “Universities have to prepare you for the jobs of tomorrow. Some of them we can only imagine now and others we can’t even guess at yet. Who knows, for example, what industries and jobs will arise from nanotech, biotechnology, 3D printing or climate change?”

“Futurologists tell us that job titles which do not yet exist will soon become mainstream professions, such as ‘elderly well-being consultants’, ‘memory augmentation surgeons’, ‘artificial intelligence programmers’, ‘augmented reality architects’, ‘haptic programmers’, ‘body-part makers’, ‘nano-doctors’ and ‘urban vertical farmers’!”

Therefore the Commissioner stated that specific scientific skills are needed, but also generic ‘21st century skills’ like the ability to come up with new ideas, to solve problems, think critically, cooperate.

“This calls for a different model of pedagogy – one which is less focused on simply cramming facts into students’ heads. In any case, I am told that your generation learns differently. I know that, here in Maastricht, the emphasis is on problem-based learning, rather than spoon-feeding students. But too many universities are still ignoring the changing needs and desires of your generation – the ‘Maastricht generation’- and they will lose out as a result. They won’t be able to attract the brightest students.”

Stop the exodus of talent

So, universities must improve the quality of teaching and research. And that, said Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn, starts with people. “It’s an all too familiar story. Brilliant young scientist gets PhD and heads off to the US. We have to stop this exodus of talent.”

“Funding from the highly successful European Research Council (ERC) has done a lot to attract talent back into Europe. It will get a major increase in support from Horizon 2020.”

“Scientists like Rainer Goebel, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht’s Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, who received an ERC advanced grant for his research into the functional organisation of the human brain.”

Towards the tenure track

But, while funding is important, there is no doubt that the lack of a defined and stable career path is also a factor. Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn recognized the frustration of young researchers. “I have even heard some European universities described as gerontocracies!”

“Many universities are now turning to the Tenure Track system to tackle the problem. Already established in the US, this provides a clear, merit-based system that takes the best researchers from postdoc to professor more quickly. I think this is a positive development; it can certainly form part of a forward looking human resources strategy. It must, of course, be compatible with the European Research Area, the single market for researchers.”

Crossing at the Meuse

A clever university taps into regional specialization, so that strengths can be mutually reinforced. Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn called Maastricht University a particularly good example in this regard.

“The region has decided that its strengths lie in life sciences, chemicals, advanced materials and agri-foods. So, major campuses have been set up that focus on these strengths, notably the Chemelot and the Health campuses, which combine knowledge and training with entrepreneurship.”

But it’s not just business that universities need to interact with; citizens, governments and NGO’s are also important partners. “Campuses should become shared spaces where education, research, business and culture inter-act with the life of the city or the region. So I know that you will play a key role in Maastricht’s bid, on behalf of the entire Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, to become European Capital of Culture in 2018.”

“Finally, universities today must be outward looking. Maastricht certainly is!”, concluded Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn. “Indeed, the university’s European character is echoed all the way to the top, with Luc being the first ‘Belgian’ rector in a Dutch university since the Fleming Justus Lipsius in the 16th century. These are big shoes to fill, but I know that Luc is up to the task. He is a valuable friend and ally for us in Brussels and we have called on his expertise on many occasions.”

“Indeed, it’s interesting to me that the name Maastricht derives from the Latin ‘Trajectum ad Mosam’ meaning ‘crossing at the Meuse’. It summons up images of bridges, links, connections and openness. With its international outlook, its close collaboration with business and its emphasis on multi-disciplinary approaches, Maastricht University very much reflects this.”

More autonomy needed

Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn finished her speech in Maastricht on a controversial note. “If we want universities to make all these changes, we can’t keep them in a straitjacket. Therefor I think that, in some Member States, universities need more autonomy, at least in some areas.”

“Universities need to be free to develop their own distinctive missions and decide on issues like staffing. How else could we expect them to keep pace in a rapidly changing world? We are asking a lot of our universities. We are counting on them to be flexible and nimble, and the European Union is there to support you all the way.”

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