Brexit, the AI race and other events that will shape European higher education this year

Morten Irgens and Christen Krogh speculate on what is in store for higher education and research in Europe in 2019

January 7, 2019
Crystal ball

We hope you are well rested, because 2019 is going to be anything but boring. Here are 10 things that the European higher education sector can expect in the next 12 months. 

1. Science will be set free
Well, not really. But in less than a year, all results funded by European Union programmes have to be openly accessible and free of charge. Plan S, announced a few months ago by Science Europe, has expanded this to major national research agencies across Europe. Critics claim that the plan proposes changes that are too radical, too soon. None of these issues have yet been resolved, but Science Europe has a year to work them out before Plan S launches in January 2020. 

2. Reviewing the reviewers
Plan S is worthless without a well-functioning quality assurance system. But for a long time, critics have said that national and institutional incentive systems favour quantity over quality. With almost 70 million hours spent each year on reviewing scientific papers – and more than two million of them being published – those scientists may be right. We expect a closer inspection of peer review systems this year. 

3. The science race is on – and you’ll get drafted
Another reason for the publication avalanche is the increased number of researchers in the world. Science is power – financial, political and militaristic. In 2018, it was reported that China had overtaken the US in the number of published papers, which provoked the European Commission to commit to channel more euros through funding agencies. If you still haven’t mastered the art of the funding application, 2019 is the year to do so. Unless you like the idea of working on another researcher’s ideas. 

4. There is money on the Horizon Europe
After years of planning, the European Commission proposed a budget of €100 billion for the world’s largest research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. It promises to be mission-oriented, while maintaining a focus on excellence in both research and innovation. With less than two years before it starts, 2019 will be a year for political positioning by Europe’s research universities.

5. Europe battles to be an AI frontrunner
The European Commission has published a plan to ramp up investment in AI innovation and research – starting with €1.5 billion in 2019 – in the hope that total public and private investment will reach €20 billion per year. But is money enough? Will Europe do what it takes? Two hundred AI labs and institutions joined the Confederation of Laboratories for AI Research in Europe (CLAIRE) in a massive effort to ensure that it does.

6. Universities establish effective policies against harassment
In 2018, academia had its #MeToo moment, which resulted in a string of sexual harassment revelations (one causing the Nobel Prize in Literature to be postponed for a year). In 2019, we expect universities to establish substantial anti-harassment programmes.

7. Distrust in the scientific community
An analysis in the US last year revealed that the largest drop in trust in higher education on record. Meanwhile, another study showed that trust in the scientific community has been stable for the past 40 years. Together the studies create quite the paradox: who should we trust to tell us who we don’t trust? What’s clear is that trust in science is tepid – and that’s not a good thing.

8. Increased academic activism
Last year saw a concerning suppression of academic freedom in Europe, with the Hungarian government withdrawing accreditation from gender studies programmes and introducing a tax on academic programmes for migrants and refugees – as well as a law on foreign branch campuses that is widely regarded as a targeted attack on the Central European University. We hope that in 2019 there will be an increase in academic activism to stem these types of offensives.

9. Brexit
Everything about the Brexit negotiations remains uncertain, but UK universities expect reduced participation in European exchange programmes, reduced access to EU research and funding, reduced competition for academic positions and up to a 60 per cent drop in students from continental Europe. The loss will affect every country in Europe – not just the UK – and is a serious blow to European collaboration on research and education. Everybody hopes that the UK will join Horizon Europe.

10. The world is going to hell and suddenly it is up to you to save it
The headlines in 2018 spoke of pandemics, water shortages, environmental calamities, climate change, demographic imbalances and migration pressures. Meanwhile Slate called Altmetric’s list of last year’s top science articles an “apocalyptic nightmare”. We don’t expect the world to magically change for the better in 2019. When politicians are asked impertinent questions, such as “How will the government address this?”, they will point to you and mutter “research”. So much for your plan for that quiet countryside sabbatical.

Morten Irgens is vice-rector at Oslo Metropolitan University and Christen Krogh is vice-rector at Kristiania University College in Oslo. 

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