Dare to be positive about Europe’s lowest-performing regions

Ahead of the Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit in the Czech Republic, Jan Palmowski summarises the changes needed to unlock the research potential in new Europe

April 24, 2018
Source: istock
Jagiellonian University in Kraków

We largely think of the low participation of the so-called EU13 countries (which all joined the European Union since 2004) in framework programmes as a problem, and the figures speak their own language: there is a significant funding gap between EU13 and EU15 countries in Horizon 2020, with EU13 countries attracting 4.9 per cent of Horizon 2020 funding in the first three years of the programme.

And, as Zygmunt Krasiński, the director of the Polish National Contact Point, reminded me last week, of the 100 most successful recipients of Horizon 2020 funding, not a single one is in an EU13 country. As Europe’s best universities and research organisations focus on competing on a global scale, it seems that there has been little progress in addressing the problems in our own backyard.

But what if we thought of Europe’s lower-performing regions in positive terms? As our biggest opportunity? Such a change in mindset would begin by recognising what has already been achieved. Before the 1990s, universities in most EU13 countries had had very little direct exposure to academic freedom. From that perspective, the success of many institutions and national systems has been remarkable, in ways that cannot be measured by international rankings.

Of course, we can lament that they have not made the same progress as some universities in Asia, for instance. But that progress has often been achieved with a level of state intervention in politics and society that we in Europe would find unacceptable. It is high time that we start to acknowledge – and to appreciate – how much has already been achieved in so many academic institutions in EU13 countries.

Europe’s greatest asset is its people. As a university professor in the UK, I have much personal experience with the energy, intelligence and hard work that students from all over Europe – including EU13 and our neighbouring countries – bring to our classrooms. The European Research Council’s statistics also demonstrate the success of so many EU13 nationals in obtaining awards, even if they are hosted abroad. The question, then, is how we can enhance this potential, ensure that it has room to flourish and help Europe – all of Europe – to succeed.

Focusing on this potential will direct our attention to mobility, collaboration and structures. We need to increase student mobility in Erasmus+ in all directions, including students going to EU13 countries and learning the host language. We need forms of bolder collaboration in which all parties have a real stake: the new European university networks are one example of what that might mean; centres of excellence funded by the EU’s teaming partnerships programme might be another.

Finally, we need to remove all the structural barriers that stand in the way of realising excellence, ranging from the optimal provision and use of research infrastructures to the ability to co-fund EU projects from locally managed funds to appropriate flexibility on salaries.

Realising our potential is not just the job of the European Commission, and it is not just the job of national governments, important though these actors are. It’s about culture change, throughout Europe. My hope for the Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit: New Europe is that we can truly reflect on how we can bring about this change.

This is a republished version of a blog for the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. 

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. 

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