"Valley of death" for knowledge transfer

Sweden is marking its six-month presidency of the European Union by taking the initiative on the process of university modernisation and the connection between higher education, research and innovation.

"The Knowledge Triangle Shaping the Future of Europe", a conference in Gothenburg earlier this month, explored the links between higher education, research and innovation against the background of the Ljubljana Process - the greater collaboration in research and innovation called for by the European Council of Ministers in 2006.

More than 300 participants including high-ranking European Union officials and the top echelons of the Swedish higher education and research community were united in looking for a new direction.

But their main conclusion - on the acute need to modernise European universities with the Knowledge Triangle as the main instrument - was informed by recognition that reform had to be tempered by the huge structural, cultural, linguistic and historical diversities in European higher education. One uniform model could not fit all - respect for the many diversities within higher education and research was the starting-point for the EU officials' interventions.

There was general agreement that time had become a critical factor because of the challenges of unprecedented magnitude the world is facing. Concrete actions had to replace discussion on the needs, priorities, pre-conditions and challenges for such changes.

Professor Anders Flodström, head of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education and Swedish University Chancellor, reinforced the sense of urgency in his introductory speech when he characterised Europe as "the most boring, but also the most exciting, area of the world within higher education and research".

Flodström, who is a member of the governing board of the European Institute of Technology (EIT), said that the present status of knowledge transfer from research and development into innovations, products, service and infrastructure often felt like a walk "in the valley of death".

This injection of dramatic wording was echoed in the opening comment from Tobias Krantz, Swedish Minister of Education and Research: "Trying to modernise European universities is like trying to modernise a graveyard. You will have little help from the insiders."

One key message was that European universities had to modernise themselves and at the same time open up for significantly expanded collaboration with the world outside Europe.

Conference organisers secured participants' endorsement for a "modernisation agenda" for European universities and a quest for an opening up of European research collaboration with the world.

Ten years' experience with the Bologna process of university reforms has underlined the role of the European ministries of higher education in driving the process. This model will now be tried out by the Swedes for increased collaboration and coordination of research and innovation between the member states, notably through the model of the Knowledge Triangle.

Krantz confirmed that Bologna was already being used as the model for planned research collaboration.

Janez Potočnik, EU Commissioner for Science and Research, said that there was no contradiction between this initiative and the greater collaboration in research and innovation called for by the European Council of Ministers in 2006 - the Ljubljana Process. The Commission strongly welcomed the Swedish work, he stated.

Asked about the financial crisis, Krantz said that work with innovative models in financial research could benefit from the Knowledge Triangle, for example in determining the relevance of innovative financial instruments for actions on climate change. Such work could focus on long-term societal gains.

Krantz said it was natural for policy makers to turn to universities for solutions, but it was still important not to lose sight of the long-term perspectives. Sweden was working on reforms that would make universities less dependent on the state.

"The time has come to make universities less dependent on central lawmaking ... A modern university must be open to new ideas, new methods and to new ways of cooperating, and this is best served by greater autonomy."

Leif Johansson, CEO of Volvo, said younger people were looking for meaningful work opportunities where their work can relate to the major problems of today. Universities should therefore train students better for such opportunities. Johansson is also a member of the European Roundtable of Industrialists, where representatives from the 50 largest companies in Europe meet twice a year. It was, he said, extremely interested in the present work with the Knowledge Triangle, adding that the EU Commission's work with the European Institute of Technology is an important step forward for European innovation of research.

* Jan Petter Myklebust is deputy director of research at the University of Bergen.