On the eve of the Nobel prizes' 100th birthday, a conference convened by Europaeum, a club of seven universities in Oxford, Leiden, Bonn, Bologna, Geneva, Paris and Prague, met at Humboldt University in Berlin. Humboldt, once one of the world's great universities and the pioneering model for research universities, boasts 29 Nobel prizes but they pre-date the university's evisceration by Nazism and Communism. Academic reputations are easily destroyed.
The question running under the surface of this week's meeting, "Borderless education: bridging Europe", was whether European universities face being eclipsed by the rich, entrepreneurial and aggressive research universities of the United States. Can the model of public universities, heavily reliant on the state and committed to a welfare-state ethos, survive in a global market for higher education? Will consortia of institutions (such as Europaeum), new technologies and coordinated programmes along the lines of the Bologna and Prague declarations, be enough to keep European institutions competitive?
Much was made of what were claimed to be distinctively European values: tolerance, cultural diversity, an appreciation of complexity, solidarity and open-mindedness, which were set out for the meeting by the president of the Italian Senate. These gain a certain glow in the lurid light of the US's war on terrorism, but not a glow warm enough to dispel the overall impression of frightened people huddling together for warmth, fearing themselves powerless in the face of barbarian hordes who care more for money than for truth.
Europe's universities are still strong but they are small, inflexible and impoverished compared with the great public and private universities of the US. Nor is it wise to take comfort from stereotypes of Americans as uncultured hicks. If European universities are to continue to flourish - or flourish again - they will need more enthusiasm for creating the future than is yet evident.