In the past 10 years, the European higher education landscape has undergone enormous changes. Many of these have been directly linked with, or driven by, the massification of higher education and the need to efficiently qualify the workforce and equip it with the skills required by a competitive global market.
Hence the Bologna higher education reforms, which brought about the restructuring of degrees, new methodologies focusing on the student learning process, increased mobility of students and staff, and a new emphasis on quality improvement and quality assurance.
At the same time building the knowledge society also required stronger links between the research and teaching missions of universities.
It soon became clear, however, that meeting the goals of Bologna and of the knowledge society demanded more than just restructuring degrees.
Consequently many national reform agendas (Portugal and Finland are just two examples) went further, including new governance structures with increased stakeholder influence, different ways of choosing university leadership and greater use of performance-based funding.
These reforms have had an impact at all levels, creating more competition, but also more cooperation, between universities and also with external stakeholders.
However, by the end of the last decade Europe was – as it still is – confronted by a deep financial crisis, together with major demographic challenges.
Europe’s population is expected to decrease 6% by 2050. In the same period, the 15 to 59 year age group will decline by 30%, while the age group of those above 60 will almost double. The group of school-leavers, from which universities traditionally recruit, is therefore shrinking across Europe, and there is also a danger of increased mobility flows from East and South to West and North.
As a result, universities are facing a series of new challenges.
They need to dramatically broaden participation in order to build a competitive workforce, notably through increased participation at master level, as well as through lifelong learning and continuing education. They also have to develop more effective ways to integrate minorities and build better ‘inter-generational bridges’ for learning.
In parallel, the drive for excellence, and to build world-class research universities, means competition for the brightest talent is getting tougher. Many institutions are striving to be ‘world-class’ universities – but what does this mean, and how many can achieve this status?
Rankings and league tables are here to stay and increasingly impact upon institutional behaviour. However, their role in increasing or promoting transparency is far from clear, and if university leaders use them ‘blindly’ this can distort university performance.
An example of this is the lack of consideration by rankings of the situation of the social sciences and the humanities at a time when the need to address global societal challenges in cross-disciplinary ways is overwhelming.
In addition, there is a danger that the efforts of European universities to improve their position in the global rankings may lead them to overlook the need to focus properly on their contribution to the social cohesion and economic development of the regions in which they are situated.
Therefore, in summary, paying too much attention to improving ranking scores can be detrimental to the fulfillment of other important tasks that are core to our higher education institutions.
A new model
For centuries the mission of the university has been, almost exclusively, to educate future governing elites and to search for true knowledge in solitude and freedom (the Humboldt model). While this contributed to the success of the academic enterprise, it also created within academia resistance to interaction with the outside world, strong competition between disciplines and a lack of knowledge integration.
These factors are detrimental to the quality of cutting-edge research, to its relevance and to innovation, contributing also to less efficiency in the use of resources. The ‘grand societal challenges’ can only be addressed by a truly multidisciplinary approach in research and in education.
To enable universities to contribute fully to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in Europe they need to have the appropriate framework conditions in terms of governance, autonomy, leadership capacity and funding.
Over the last 10 years there has been a strong movement in Europe to modernise university governance and management and at the same time make institutions more responsive, autonomous and accountable. Hence, one could say that models of governance similar to the ones used in the corporate sector are becoming more common.
Leadership capacity is crucial and a key factor of successful institutional development. Thus universities need to pay careful attention to the way in which their leaders are chosen, emphasising leadership and management skills. University leaders need to be able to respond rapidly to change, and in particular to show initiative and to spearhead the change process.
In terms of funding, the European University Association has been monitoring the impact of the economic crisis on universities.
Its analysis has shown that the majority of countries have experienced cuts (some very severe) in the public funding of universities, and in particular in their teaching budgets.
The economic climate has also had a negative effect on collaborative projects with industry, and on institutional autonomy, with governments resorting to direct steering mechanisms, regulations and often intrusive accountability procedures.
Clearly, this brings new challenges for university leaders.
Addressing them requires a modernised idea of the university as an organisation: one with a segmented mission and a clear vision, an institution that recognises the need for knowledge creation through interaction among the different disciplines, from the hard sciences and technologies to the humanities and social sciences.
Above all, it requires institutional autonomy and appropriate support and incentives enabling universities to organise themselves internally, and to define and implement their respective missions, thus providing the added value and the improved quality, performance and outputs that Europe needs.
At the same time, while universities must take this opportunity to modernise and become more responsive to societal needs, they must also remain a source of independent reflection and play the role of a critical conscience.
This means reflecting critically upon societal development while also contributing to the solution of key social challenges, informing public policies and playing their role in educating sustainability-aware citizens.
Universities are no longer ivory towers. Perhaps a better metaphor is that they should be seen as lighthouses, shedding light on and highlighting the paths forward to help society in the present constant process of change.
* Professor Helena Nazaré is president-elect of the European University Association. The EUA's annual conference is from 22-23 March at the University of Warwick in the UK.
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