Government trust in universities ‘diminished’, says EUA head

Michael Murphy fears universities are now seen as being in ‘perpetual opposition’ by politicians

十一月 4, 2019
Protest at Istanbul University against bill submitted to Turkish Parliament to spilt up several universities
Source: Getty
Protest at Istanbul University against bill submitted to Turkish Parliament to spilt up several universities

Government trust in universities has “diminished” over the past two decades, with institutions seen as “perpetual opposition” by some politicians, the president of the European University Association has warned.

Michael Murphy, former head of the National University of Ireland and University College Cork, said that universities had to do a better job of making the case to governments that academics are key to their success or failure.

“The connections aren’t as strong as they used to be,” he told Times Higher Education. “Universities have traditionally seen themselves as having a societal role, as holding a mirror up to power,” he said. But they were now sometimes seen as not sharing the same “identity” as governments “and might be regarded as perpetual opposition”.

“We are a critical determinant of the likely success of their policies: economic, social and whatever,” he said, but universities needed to make this argument more clearly to national governments.

Professor Murphy – whose research career focused on drug therapy for cardiovascular disease – took over leadership of the EUA, which represents more than 800 institutions in 48 countries, at a crucial juncture for relations between universities and their governments. The Central European University has been forced to move from Budapest to Vienna after a politically motivated and unprecedented expulsion by Hungary’s nationalist government. Turkish academics have been dismissed and in some cases jailed by an increasingly authoritarian regime. And yet the picture is far from uniformly gloomy: the EUA’s own research has found that some European states are granting universities more autonomy in the form of new governance or legal structures.

Asked whether universities could stop another CEU-style expulsion, Professor Murphy said: “You’re reminding me of Stalin’s question: how many divisions has the Pope? Our goal here is to use every vehicle to remind governments and citizens of the ultimate consequences of these kind of actions.

“At the end of the day, there will be economic and social consequences for that country.”

Professor Murphy, who officially started his four-year term as president in July, also plans to push for what he called a true “European university system”. Reforms such as the Bologna Process have attempted to standardise issues like degree length across Europe, to allow students to more easily switch countries. “To be frank about it, there is still an awful lot to be achieved,” he said.

Despite European countries agreeing to mutually recognise each other’s degrees, “on the ground it’s not practised”, Professor Murphy said.

“The reality is an awful lot of students who endeavour to set out to move…find that in practice it’s not as simple as the theory indicates,” he said. There needs to be more “trust and understanding” between academics in different European states so that study in one country can be transferred across to another, he said.

It needs to be easier for researchers to move around the continent too, he said – citing the difficulty of transferring pensions between states.

Europe needs “sufficient scale” to hold its own in the world, he argued, “with sufficient performance in matters of research, innovation, [and] economic achievements”.

“So a European university system...that enables that European agenda is absolutely critical,” he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Academy has ‘lost government trust’

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Reader's comments (2)

Government trust in universities? Surely it's the other way around, the universities cannot trust politicians! As well as the disgraceful way in which the Central European University has been hounded out of Hungary, all universities are under-funded, harrassed by governmental interference, and see decisions made without regard to their needs. If governments see us as 'perpetual opposition' it is probably because they do not like being held accountable for their actions.
I agree that Governments should no longer trust Universities in Australia as the focus has changed from "Gaining Knowledge" to "Making Money from Students". Many Australian Universities have lowered their standards to ensure that a sufficient percentage of students will leave the university with a degree, and coupled with this has been the constant pressure from the students to obtain Grades much higher than their abilities due to the exchange of cash directly between the student and the Lecturer - I refused to participate in this practice and my tenure was quickly terminated.

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