EUROPE: A chance for European universities

Former Dutch Education Minister and current President of Maastricht University, Jo Ritzen, has placed an extensive book draft on a website for comment. A Chance for European Universities is available for comments until 1 March 2010 and will be published by Amsterdam University Press in May.

The book is a goldmine of comparative country statistics on economic and social trends of relevance to higher education policies in Europe. It includes sophisticated, well- documented analyses on the impacts of university rankings on European university performance. There is a strong call for change, sometimes formulated almost in biblical terms, such as "when the demographic storm blows the tree is likely to fall".

Before becoming President of Maastricht University, Ritzen has previously worked at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Katholieke University Nijmegen (now Radboud University) and the University of California at Berkeley. He was Minister of Education and Science (or had other portfolios) in three Dutch governments and was one of 30 vice-presidents at the World Bank. He has also written extensively on higher education reforms.

Ritzen's voice will carry weight in ongoing discussion on the need for European university reforms. Unless European politicians act now, he argues in the book, Europe will face a higher education crisis. This is due to:

* Demographic changes not producing sufficient young people to attend universities.
* Lack of public money and inertia in securing private capital for higher education and research.
* Rigid national structures not opening up for flexible cross-national coordination of policies: "The Bologna process has to be denationalised with European-wide accreditation and quality control," he writes.
* Ambiguity of European universities to leave the ivory tower and engage actively in science-based innovation as a driver for economic development.
* A need for the reorganisation of universities from bureaucratic to innovative.
* A change in public esteem of and pride in universities to an at best lukewarm attitude today.

Unless major shifts occur, Ritzen writes, European universities are going to lose students and as a result will get into a downward spiral.

The many tables and graphs provided demonstrate great European variations. For instance, Bulgaria and Romania have a per capita income of no more than 5% of that of Luxembourg (EUR65,000 in Luxemburg, EUR2,800 in Bulgaria and EUR3,700 in Romania). The book contains a number of similarly important parameters for studying higher education in Europe.

Ritzen analyses the performance of European universities in international rankings and links this to contextual factors of resources and management structures, stating that most European institutions have been "unable to adapt to the new globalised world and are thus insufficiently serving society in providing global leadership".

He takes account of academic mobility as a major parameter for change and estimates, conservatively, that the number of students studying outside their home country will grow from 2.9 million to 4.5 million in 2020.

For university managers, this is an excellent opportunity to study a collection of arguments and documentation that is usually scattered in many different sources, and to use the information in planning institutional strategies. It is also a rare opportunity to provide feedback to an author on how he could sharpen his analysis, and to provide further information on issues of importance to European university reforms.