EUROPE: Universities agree to sharpen profiles

Universities across Europe are attempting to sharpen their distinctive profiles in response to an era of multiple reforms and deep cuts in government spending.

To achieve this they are trying to develop tailored research strategies, clear staff profiles and increased student diversity.

But hindrances to the pursuit of diversity include simplistic international rankings and the tendency to focus on pan-European rather than national or local issues as a result of the Bologna process.

These are the conclusions of 300 university leaders and stakeholders who attended the three-day annual conference of the European Universities Association, held in Palermo, Italy, from 20-23 October.

Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, told delegates: "Education serves the common good best when it escapes uniformity. Yes, Europeans everywhere should have access to higher education; but not all institutions should deliver the same programmes and appeal to the same students.

"It is true that we need world-class research universities. But we need excellence in every corner of higher education: we need high-performing teacher training institutions, professional and vocational schools, [and] lifelong learning centres."

She said there was a need to open doors to people who had not previously considered university as a choice and to people who had already been at work, and to deliver education programmes to meet their needs.

But diversity - whether of mission, study courses or students - did not mean a free for all. It had to be underpinned by solid foundations of European standards, guidelines and procedures.

António Rendas, Rector of Universidade Nova de Lisboa, said parity of esteem among different institutional types or missions was only possible if a variety of funding incentives were available and if there was significant funding to support expanded functions.

Alex Usher, President of Higher Education Strategy Associates and editor-in-chief of Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor, said diversity in policy-making in Europe had come under threat from the Bologna process (see Commentary).

"This pan-European issue seems quite simply to be crowding out some important policy work at the local/national level with the result that some countries seem to have difficulty making policy on higher education in areas that are not related to Bologna."

The debates focused on institutions' current and potential reactions to the profound changes taking place in higher education across Europe, which have been driven not only by the economic downturn but also by the continuing 'massification' of higher education and demographic change.

Faced with massive spending cuts, universities are looking to diversify funding sources, develop effective research partnerships with a range of collaborators, provide incentives and development opportunities for staff, and pursue global engagement.

They are also looking to develop multicultural learning environments and be more sensitive to the needs of students from different cultures to respond to the needs of increasingly diverse student populations.

Some of the main challenges are finding the right balance between research, innovation and teaching, including lifelong learning; focusing on educational or research niches; serving the region and the wider world; avoiding bureaucratisation; and promoting interdisciplinarity, including internal mobility for staff.

Jo Ritzen, President of Maastricht University, said to succeed universities had to increase their mission differentiation, internationalise, and develop innovative teaching, learning and research. Nearly one in three of Maastricht's undergraduate intake, and one in two of its masters intake, are international students.

Paul Serban Agachi, President of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, said recruiting strategies have become increasingly proactive, seeking students at the national, international, and sometimes regional levels. In Romania's case this meant the Balkan region or South-eastern Europe.

Agachi is also President of the Association of Carpathian Region Universities, which includes universities from Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia. He said that at the national level an increasingly diverse student population was being recruited, with the recruitment of ethnic minorities, more women, disadvantaged groups such as Roma people, and other non-traditional categories such as students for lifelong learning, profession switching or retraining, and mid-career training.

Of 21 faculties at BBU, 15 provided both a Romanian and a Hungarian curriculum, and nine both a Romanian and a German curriculum.

Andrée Sursock, the conference rapporteur and a senior EUA adviser, said that simplistic rankings were a hindrance to the pursuit of diversity.

"Parity of esteem among different types of institutions is essential and must be supported by a diversity of performance indicators and of funding incentives," she said.

Commissioner Vassiliou said transparency was vital to enable institutions to stand out and seek institutions with similar profiles to improve their strengths through cooperation.

"In today's global and mobile world, our universities face increased competition, at home and abroad. With a sharper profile, universities can stand out from the crowd; they show their strengths clearly, and know where their competitive edge lies," she said.

Deepening understanding of this issue is the motive for two EC supported projects, the U-map project to classify the diverse profiles of European higher education institutions and the U-Multirank project, a feasibility study for a multi-dimensional ranking framework.

Other speakers emphasised that to build an individual profile institutions had not only to decide on a distinct profile and build it, but they had to market it.

Related links

Europe: U-Multirank pilot study under way
Europe: Bologna doesn't have to kill diversity