A Chance for European Universities, Or: Avoiding the Looming University Crisis in Europe

September 23, 2010

Following hard on the heels of his influential work A Chance for the World Bank (2005), this book places Jo Ritzen at the forefront of the debate on public finance within a global context. Currently president of the University of Maastricht - and formerly vice-president of the World Bank's development economics department and the Dutch minister of education, culture and science - Ritzen is ideally placed to foresee "the looming university crisis in Europe", assess its likely impact, and suggest appropriate avoidance strategies. He performs each of these tasks with enviable breadth of scholarship and depth of insight.

In a recent interview, Ritzen said he had been moved to write the book by "the ancient political dream that a serious discussion can change the course of events". One only hopes that those with the power to bring about such change will heed that fine Aristotelian sentiment, read and re-read this book, and learn from its underlying assumption that "the best way to reduce budget deficits and public debt is by increasing higher education and research expenditure as the powerhouses for economic growth".

In contrast to the US and Japan, argues Ritzen, Europe has "let its citizens down on the finance of universities by consistently cutting the per-student budget". Problems posed by the erosion of public finance, he argues, have been exacerbated by the fact that "the role of private finance other than tuition fees is very limited in Europe". Moreover, in sharp contrast to the US, "a tradition of philanthropy for universities does not exist". As a result, Ritzen claims, European universities are experiencing "financial suffocation".

Throughout the European Union, Ritzen detects a shift over the past 60 years from "the oligarchic university" through "the democratized university" and "the bureaucratic university" to "the professional university". The timelines are fuzzy and relate differentially to the histories and politics of different nation states, but Ritzen's message is clear and strong: the future of European higher education lies in the sustainability of the autonomous, innovative and professional university.

Such universities, he argues, will require adequate funding, the means to earn additional funds and meta-systems of higher education that bypass existing national systems in the interests of European students who are entering an international labour market. He adds to this mix of priorities an emphasis on equality of opportunity, which he maintains relies crucially on existing notions of a fair distribution of income. This he sees as no longer a luxury but as an economic necessity if European universities are to have a chance.

This is a wide-ranging book that sets its sights high, and its author is not afraid to nail his European social democratic colours to the mast. He looks to Europe-wide solutions to problems that he defines with reference to the historical parochialisms of particular national systems.

Those more familiar with those particular systems will no doubt want to argue with Ritzen on some of his microanalyses, but the macro perspective is what is important in this big, agenda-setting book: the need to fill the European space of higher education with cosmopolitan institutions that connect across national and cultural boundaries.

Ritzen has opened up a much-needed debate on the structure and financing of universities in the 21st century. Although focusing specifically on the European university, he provides insights that will be of value to all those with an interest in the changing role of the university within a global context.

Hopefully, the book will prompt detailed studies of particular national systems and how these might move towards interconnective forms of governance. In the meantime, however, we must be grateful for a book that, while confronting "the looming university crisis", refuses to lose heart.

A Chance for European Universities, Or: Avoiding the Looming University Crisis in Europe

By Jo Ritzen. Amsterdam University Press. 224pp, £24.95. ISBN 9789089642295. Published 1 July 2010

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