Whither the Europe of Knowledge?

At the end of the second millennium, the European Union (EU) boldly proclaimed that within a decade it aimed to become the ‘most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’. This ambition and its renewal through the Europe 2020 strategy have seemingly been forgotten and, indeed, neglected amid the economic crisis.

To what extent has the ongoing crisis redefined or transformed the ‘Europe of Knowledge?’ I will answer this by first describing what the Europe of Knowledge is.

Four visions of the Europe of Knowledge

The supranational origin of the phrase ‘Europe of Knowledge’ can be traced to a 1997 European Commission communication. It was initially envisaged as ‘an open dynamic European educational area’ with only few references made to research and innovation. This is surprising because it was stated earlier that efforts towards consolidating the union as a knowledge-based polity should stem from multiple policy streams.

A year later, the signing of the Sorbonne Declaration gave it a stronger socio-cultural dimension by stressing the role of the university and contrasting the ‘Europe of Knowledge’ with that of the ‘Europe of Euro’.

Turning to the research sector, the core EU document setting out the rationale for creating a common scientific area – that is, the European Research Area – depicted the Europe of Knowledge as one of innovation. There was a clear emphasis on the market economy and the utility of science.

What Åse Gornitzka and I concluded in a forthcoming edited book is that the Europe of Knowledge has been used to refer to at least four distinct visions: the foundation for a knowledge-based economy (economic competitiveness); an embodiment of a knowledge-based society (education for social inclusion, civic education and socialising the citizens of Europe); an instrument of a knowledge-based policy (science as a transversal problem-solver of Europe’s grand challenges); and a tool for enhancing the competitiveness of European science and higher education.

These visions suggest that the governance of knowledge policies is positioned in an area of tension between society, culture, politics and the market. In turn, this means that the policy and substantive boundaries of the Europe of Knowledge are fluid.

When we consider the impact of the crisis on the Europe of Knowledge, we can ask: has it contributed, in any way, to solidifying these boundaries and promoting a single unified vision for the European knowledge area?

‘One step forwards, two steps back and sideways’

The simple answer is: no. The crisis has provided opportunities for the more entrepreneurial EU policy-makers to articulate the urgency of their sectoral objectives and to redefine the Europe of Knowledge closer to their intended vision.

For instance, it has been used as a catalyst to ‘bring ideas to the market’ and the concept of the ‘innovation cycle’ was introduced to tightly couple EU-funded research and innovation activities. This by no means suggests that the vision of the Europe of Knowledge as an instrumental tool to ease the EU out of the current crisis is uncontested or even politically salient.

Indeed, there is a grassroots movement to return science to its foundation of curiosity-driven exploration, while research and innovation were not on the negotiation agenda between the troika of the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF with countries such as Greece, Spain or Portugal.

The most significant impact the crisis is having, and can be expected to continue to have, on the Europe of Knowledge is financial. The tightening of the ‘EU budget belt’ on spending in these sectors, especially for public research institutions, will undoubtedly have a strong negative effect that remains to be fully seen.

The European University Association’s Public Funding Observatory has documented the economic impact of the crisis on public funding for European universities since 2008. While its Spring 2013 survey has shown an increase for some countries, the overwhelming majority have experienced a reduction from between 1% to 10% in public funding.

Traditionally, at least since the inception of the EU framework programmes in the 1980s, cash-strapped scientists and research groups have turned to the union for support. To where will they now apply? Are we likely to see a fleeing of talent from Europe to other parts of the world?

The long-term effect of the crisis, if policy issues concerning the Europe of Knowledge continue to be sidelined, would be the consolidation of an uneven knowledge area in Europe. This ‘uneven knowledge geography’ will have unforeseen repercussions beyond market performance and innovative capacity that may take decades to redress, if redress is at all possible.

It is important to end on a positive note: the EU has robust institutions in the knowledge sectors. For instance, while one might anticipate a systematic dismantling of the EU, so far we have not observed signs of withdrawal by the European Commission on key higher education, research and innovation policy issues.

Also, there has not been an en masse decentralisation of competence to the national level. This shows that knowledge policies are still important to European integration. If only they could return to centre stage again.

* Meng-Hsuan Chou is Nanyang assistant professor in public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She is the academic coordinator of the European Research Area Collaborative Research Network, generously supported by the Academic Association for Contemporary European Studies, and the chair for the Europe of Knowledge section at the European Consortium for Political Research general conference. Her book co-edited with Åse Gornitzka, Building the Knowledge Economy in Europe: New constellations in European research and higher education governance, will be published by Edward Elgar in the series ‘New Horizons in European Politics’. She will be speaking at the Higher Education Development Association Europe of Knowledge conference later this month.