EUROPE: Empowering European universities

With publication of A chance for European universities by Jo Ritzen, former Dutch education minister and President of Maastricht University, a high-level conference in Brussels has worked out a manifesto based on the new book.

The manifesto, Empowering European Universities, concludes that "an increase in private finance is the only solution forward". But it will be difficult to raise the enthusiasm for this message that European higher education now needs.

The conference last week focused on examining the performance of European universities, demographic factors and the battle for talent, and financing universities and university autonomy as a basis for investment in the future.

Among higher education and business stakeholders who attended were the President of the European Research Council Professor Helga Nowotny, Vice-chancellor of Greenwich University and former UK Higher Education Minister Baroness Tessa Blackstone, and French economist and Harvard professor Philippe Aghion.

The manifesto is directed at European politicians and the European university community, and urgently calls for empowerment of universities to create further prosperity in Europe.

At present, says the manifesto, universities are far from contributing their full potential to this end, and reform of European universities must continue unabated.

It says: "The Bologna agreement has been a breakthrough by creating an open European higher education space in which the wheels of competition could promote the best achievements. But the Bologna process has been bogged down in the narrow minded concept of national accreditation, quality control, language problems, government regulation and the budgetary constraints of higher education, so that the true competition is severely handicapped."

Ritzen said European universities were generally underfinanced. But public budgets were overloaded and "an increase in private finance is the only solution".

While that may be so, it is not easy to raise enthusiasm for private universities in Europe, especially from people who have benefited from free education and now see their lives would have been different within a system of high-cost education that charged tuition fees, for instance.

Agnete Vabø, Research Director at the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education in Oslo, has worked with university reforms over two decades in a comparative perspective. University World News asked her if she thought the manifesto would enhance the work of more private universities in Europe.

Vabø said: "I question whether this social return [due to private investments] will benefit the democratic goals which have been important in the development of what we might conceptualise as the higher education welfare states, such as equal access to higher education. Secondly, we need to protect academic autonomy and creativity in order to protect a democratic society as well as academic excellence."

Asked by University World News to comment, Ritzen said:

"There is a full agreement among experts and former ministers of higher education and science that a renaissance of European universities is urgently needed to help overcome the major problems of today, such as the financial crisis, the challenge of sustainable development and the demographic crisis in Europe.

"Such a renaissance requires changes of all partners: universities should be more focused on their differentiated mission, governments should empower universities, of course with full accountability, and financing should be on par with the substantial social and economic returns to higher education.

"The EU should spur the development of an EU Space for Higher Education and Research by a European statute which allows a limited part of national universities to work under the same rules and guidelines."