Waves of change close on campus

Universities and the Europe of Knowledge
May 26, 2006

The European dimension of higher education policies is beginning to emerge as an important subject of political debate and decision, and these two books are a useful introduction to the issues.

After the rejection of its proposed Constitution in the French and Dutch referendums, the European Union is groping for new ways forwards. There is a new interest in promoting economic competitiveness, in which the formation of human capital through education and training is a crucial factor.

The Doha round of world trade talks may result in cuts in spending on the Common Agricultural Policy, so new ways of spending "European" money may be required. All this is bringing Europe's universities and European research to the top of the Brussels agenda.

Bob Reinalda and Ewa Kulesza's book is itself a harbinger of the future: a German book originally published in English by a firm based partly in Germany and partly in the US. Although its authors are based at Dutch and French institutions, this is an admirably Teutonic production, which aims to provide dates, facts and documents more than analysis and interpretation. We see the discussion between universities developing from the Magna Charta Universitatum (1988) into the ministerial meetings that produced the Sorbonne and Bologna declarations (1998, 1999), and the subsequent Prague, Berlin and Bergen communiques (2001, 2003, 2005). And we see the European Commission, the Council of Europe, Unesco, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and a raft of non-governmental institutions increasingly getting in on the act. The authors provide chapter and verse for the picture of a gathering wave beginning to break.

Anne Corbett's book reminds us of the history that lies behind these developments. Her subtitle, however, is misleading: the story she tells really covers only the period from 1955 to the late 1980s. Her focus is also narrower than that of Reinalda and Kulesza. She sets the scene firmly in Brussels and its institutions, and her story is primarily designed to illustrate a political science thesis that "policy entrepreneurs" are even more important in the process of policy change than are "historical institutionalism", "path dependency" and "new institutionalism". The book still bears too many marks of its origin in a London School of Economics doctoral thesis.

On the other hand, Corbett's interview-based methodology gives personal life and character to an important part of the background to the current debate, and her emphasis on Brussels and its peculiarities will provide helpful insights as the threads begin to be gathered together there over the next few years.

We can look forward at the European level to a replay of the old debates between "freedom" and "instrumentalisation" in education. This will be a pity, because the new developments are above all an opportunity for healthy self-criticism on the part of all those who have been involved in the postwar decline of the European university from its historical position as the world's gold standard for higher education.

Politicians have to ask themselves whether they have been trying to get too much for too little or whether, more fundamentally, the abuse of the tradition of the university as a state institution has played a part in this decline. Academics have to ask themselves whether they have been protecting cherished intellectual ideals or merely looking after professional and personal vested interests. Students have to ask themselves whether they are paying their fair share.

An unaccustomed spotlight is beginning to shine on Europe's universities. How will they shape up? We are about to find out.

Robert Jackson was Minister for Higher Education, 1987-90. He crossed the floor to join Labour in 2005, in protest against Conservative policies on higher education and on Europe.

Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, Institutions and Policy Entrepreneurship in European Union Higher Education Policy 1955-2005

Author - Anne Corbett
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 268
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 1 4039 3245 X

Please
or
to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Sponsored