EUROPE: Neo-liberals push university privatisation

The third European University Business Forum took place in Brussels earlier this month with the aim of furthering transnational discussion on the commercialisation of higher education.

A neo-liberal movement has advocated privatisation of European universities, in a similar way to their North American competitors, since the World Trade Organization included education in its General Agreement on Trade in Services in 1995.

Their calls gained traction following the global economic crisis. National governments are forced to deal with increased demand for higher education. With less money available to them, many have sought diversification of university funding.

Moreover, high levels of unemployment have provided governments with further impetus to encourage more commercially orientated degree programmes and academic research.

Higher education in Europe is linked politically and economically through the Bologna process and the euro, and links between business and universities have increased rapidly across the continent.

The University Business Forum took place against this background. The forum, previously held in February 2008 and 2009, is organised by the European Commission. It believes that "universities should develop structured partnerships with the world of enterprise" so they are able to respond better and faster to market demands.

By inviting representatives of higher education, business and public authorities from throughout Europe to converge in Brussels, they are able to foster these partnerships and promote and improve the process of privatising higher education.

Participants had a number of developments to reflect on this year. Powerful advocates of neo-liberal higher education policy, such as the former UK Business Secretary, Peter (Lord) Mandelson, have become increasingly prominent and privatisation within the sector has stretched as far as the traditionally socially inclusive Scandinavia.

Furthermore, major problems in Southern and Eastern Europe - such as university funding cuts of 48% in Latvia, a 53% rise in graduate unemployment in Hungary and total financial meltdown in Greece - mean many countries are becoming susceptible to radical higher education reform.

Reforms to 'university governance', 'putting knowledge to work', and increasing 'mobility between business and academia' were among the subjects addressed at this year's forum.

Around 400 representatives of higher education and business shared their 'ideas for concrete action...on European, national, regional and local level', through speeches, workshops and roundtable discussions. Proposals for 'new curricula for employability', with more internships and entrepreneurial opportunities, focused on students.

Meanwhile, the case for commercialising academic research was put forward by keynote speaker Jose Sierra, Director General at the Spanish Ministry of Education. Sierra claimed that "research by itself does not create, it is innovation that creates money and development".

Alongside the push for commercialising higher education and research, a counter-movement has grown within the academic community. Students and academics defend the principles of 'education for education's sake' and of freedom from premeditated goals and economic assessments for research.

Ideological tensions in higher education have been especially evident in Austria, where thousands of students staged semester-long sit-ins against university financing proposals last year.

Professor Konrad Liessmann, a prominent philosopher at the University of Vienna, argues that while "there is really nothing wrong with the idea that universities serve businesses and promote economic growth, it is not their main purpose".

Liessmann goes on to stress the importance of 'freedom of thought' and, in direct rebuttal to Sierra, claims: "If the fatal solution to foster only applied research does gain the upper hand in Europe, in the long term it would mean the end of the university idea.

"It is this idea," he said, "that has brought the continent almost everything it has attained: the enlightenment, reason, technology, human rights, the concept of political freedom and the idea of a humane world with a reasonably rational order."

Nevertheless, the overriding and powerful majority at the forum continue to regard higher education commercialisation as paramount.