European universities must better proclaim their success and potential

Universities were not prominent in Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union address, but it left plenty of room for them to thrive, says Jan Palmowski

September 16, 2022
A megaphone painted in the European flag
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The European Commission president’s annual State of the Union address in the European Parliament is always a major highlight in the EU’s political calendar. It charts the key trends and priorities for the commission’s leadership. What lessons should universities take from Ursula von der Leyen’s address on 14 September?

To begin with, von der Leyen underlined Europe’s need for labour, from unskilled to university-educated. This speaks to how universities are constantly innovating and transforming their curricula. The EU has for some time pursued a life-long learning agenda. But it has also been clear for some time that universities need enhanced national support for curriculum change and new life-long learning provision. This must be forthcoming.

Von der Leyen dwelled on the current economic challenges, highlighting the EU’s role in helping Europe recover from the pandemic and its consequences, through the recovery and resilience facility. But she did not mention the EU’s pivotal role in supporting vaccine development, through decades of prior support for breakthrough, frontier research, including through the European Research Council. This omission should give all of us in universities pause to reflect: we are simply not good enough at communicating the compelling scientific story that we have just lived through.

The climate crisis occupied an important place in von der Leyen’s speech, as was to be expected. She noted our dependency for rare earth materials on China and other countries, and she vowed to take strategic steps, including building up reserves to ensure supply. But surely another, parallel track must be the fostering of research into new, alternative technologies that reduce our consumption of such precious materials.

The commission president emphasised the need for paradigm shifts when it comes to investing in green technology, using the example of green hydrogen. We need to ensure that research and innovation are at the heart of that – including the social sciences and humanities that will ensure a holistic approach to societal and economic transformation.

Von der Leyen reiterated the role of science in her €300 billion (£260 billion) Global Gateway investment plan announced last December. This aims to create “smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport and strengthen health, education and research systems across the world”. In her State of the Union plan, she cited the construction of two mRNA-vaccine-producing plants in Africa as the first fruits of her strategy. But these plants need to be supported by highly trained graduates and scientists; such endeavours are doomed to fail without supporting local research and innovation. That is why it will be critical to implement fully, and for the long term, the forthcoming joint innovation agenda with the African Union (AU), announced at the EU-AU Summit last February.

Perhaps the most important moment in the speech for universities came when von der Leyen talked about democracy. She underlined that it cannot be taken for granted and must be actively supported, within the union and beyond. The EU’s apparent need to develop close partnerships with its neighbours and friends should bode well for a new push towards closer relations with Switzerland and the UK. We might have grounds for optimism again for Swiss and UK association to Horizon Europe.

Von der Leyen explicitly articulated her concern about foreign interference in universities. There will be a rich debate in the coming years about how we can ensure the knowledge generated at European universities is not misused. In response, universities need to find constructive and robust ways to defend free and open research, while assuring policymakers that they take their security concerns seriously.

At the same time, universities must emphasise their pivotal role in strengthening democracies, not least through the social science and humanities. We must also defend the role of universities not just in providing knowledge to students but also in fostering citizenship in all its dimensions, including critical thinking, open-mindedness and social engagement. And we must insist on the quintessential importance of academic freedom for functioning democracies.

President von der Leyen’s speech, delivered in the presence of Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, started and ended with the EU’s solidarity with Ukraine. This determination to support Ukraine’s society now and at a time of reconstruction also challenges the university sector. What part can we play, and what ideas can we develop so that Ukraine’s research and innovation sector is better supported? And how do we support scholars (and students) at risk in times of war more generally?

The European Commission’s future priorities leave plenty of room for universities to thrive. Indeed, they cannot be achieved without us. But it is clear that we must become more effective at underlining our past achievements, our present contributions, and our future potential.

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

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