Can universities lead Europe out of crisis?

Can universities save Europe from its current economic problems? I believe that university education and research can help to recreate hope and optimism for a bright future, although this will not be achieved by more Brussels bureaucracy. Cooperation could create a better Europe.

If member states would learn from each other in terms of what works and what does not work in university policy...If European education and research would compete on a European scale...

But even more important is the reclaiming of ground by European intellectuals inside and outside the university, who should organise themselves and overcome the crisis of trust between academia and society.

Up to now, European countries have learned little from one another. They prefer to make their own mistakes, ignoring the experiences of other countries.

Empower European Universities

The foundation, Empower European Universities – of which I am founder and chair – has been set up to provide a mirror for European Union member states so that they can see what they do right and what they do wrong in university policy.

EEU is funded in part by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and backstopped by the Educational Testing Service. It works with a network of 29 correspondents: one in each of the EU member countries and two in countries outside the EU that belong to the European Research Area.

EEU collects data and analyses the direct impact of government university policy on the performance of universities in teaching and research from the vantage point of its translation into society. For example, EEU analyses for EU countries how the bureaucratisation of universities depresses the innovation of a country's economy.

EEU aims to publish an annual or biannual State of University Policy for Progress report with a ‘grading’ of the university policy of each of the EU’s member states, based on their performance and contribution to economic growth, innovation and competitiveness. But the information and analysis should be compelling.

Actions needed

Governments of EU member states should be held accountable for their policies. There should be correction mechanisms at the European level for obviously bad policies, much like the correction mechanisms for bad macro-economic policies. In that way, learning from the experiences of other countries could upgrade the university education-for-growth machine.

Learning from one another with European correction facilities is a form of regulation. We can also use the forces of competition, either in addition or as an alternative.

The idea behind competition is that students should be well informed about the qualities of individual degree courses in Europe and free to choose where they want to study, while the financial conditions would be the same as if they were to study in their home country. Subsequently, the universities that are good at attracting students would be rewarded.

The forces of competition in higher education have not been exploited in Europe, mostly because the quality of higher education has been difficult to measure. Increasingly, however, good measures are available, not in the least thanks to the EU-project on Multidimensional Ranking and the OECD’s AHELO project.

Competition would create an upward quality spiral, increase student mobility and prepare students better for an increasingly international labour market.

The creation of a new type of Erasmus programme – let’s call it Erasmus 3.0 – in which around 10% of the universities of member countries of the EU would be governed by EU legislation and partly financed through European funds by 2020, would be a step towards an EU with university quality competition.

For public research the case is simpler: it should be governed at a European level. There are clear disadvantages of small scale in many public research areas.

The current existence of a European Research Council, next to 27 national research councils – each limited in their research calling, in selection of submitted proposals and in the granting of research funds to their respective national geographical boundaries – is very inefficient.

Research excellence is heavily dependent on scale: the European scale seems to be the most logical scale for most publicly funded research activities, for reducing the costs in selecting and evaluating research proposals and for enabling high-quality research specialisation.

At the same time, social security and pension provision for universities should be organised on a European scale to allow for full mobility of university staff.

Universities could help ‘save’ Europe

Pan-European higher education and public research has the substantial promise to contribute to a ‘saving of Europe’ through universities.

It is a matter of conceiving the transition from knowledge strategies, which are mostly country specific with the idiosyncrasies of overlap and insufficient adjustment, to the globalisation of knowledge towards a common policy that ensures cohesion and convergence in a sustainable growth strategy.

It is also a matter of gaining the political support for this direction because it means a different interpretation of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity has been interpreted as: this is no business for Europe, because we have not included it in the treaty as a European concern. Yet, the original concept of subsidiarity implied that whatever can be better done at the national scale should be done there.

University education and research can better be implemented by member states. But they need a European framework in order to achieve a vibrant Europe.

The bureaucracy of European research is at present stifling, because every European project and programme has to be handled as if one size fits all. A vibrant Europe relies on the procedures in the home country for the allocation and accounting of research funds.

The political support for more Europe is heavily dependent on the ability of Europe to act in a decentralised way with regard to implementing the European framework. The intellectual leadership role of universities seems to have dried up and needs to be redeployed for a vibrant Europe.

Pact between politics and universities

In addition, universities have done too little to show their hand in concentrating on major societal questions and coming up with potential answers. In particular the role of social science and humanities research could be strengthened.

This is part of the broader loss of trust between academia and society, despite the major improvements that have taken place in university education and research. The voice of national organisations of universities, like rectors' conferences or university associations, or of international organisations, is not heard in politics.

European society interprets this voice principally as self-serving, while at the same time university rectors and presidents have little respect for their political leaders. They claim that the best social outcome from universities is realised by giving full autonomy to universities, without interference from government.

The university that saves Europe would, as well as being part of a European competitive space, also be trusted by society.

That university would be governed autonomously and not by detailed bureaucratic regulation, but there would be a clear understanding from society that the university is looking towards the future, focused on societal questions and constantly adjusting to the changes that are taking place in society – even if this means serious and possibly painful changes in its own house.

Europe needs a new pact between politics and universities, which relieves universities of the pressures of the electoral cycle, while still meaning they have to live up to the expectations of society.

Such a pact also requires that universities be willing to take the responsibility for far more drastic changes than have been brought about in the past. European universities should do away with the exclusion that national languages bring and revert to one European language.

Finally, it is obvious that universities could contribute much more to a vibrant Europe if they were better funded by private and public means alike. This applies to university education and research. Additional funding is an investment with substantial returns for European societies.

* Jo Ritzen is a senior policy advisor for the Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA) in Germany and founder and chair of the foundation Empower European Universities. He is also a former vice president of the World Bank’s development economics department and former president of Maastricht University. This is an extract from his IZA policy paper Can the University Save Europe?