Barroso sees lessons for European universities from his US vantage

Continent must learn to maximise research strengths, says former European Commission president turned ‘accidental academic’

February 26, 2015

Source: Getty

Perspective: after 10 years on the political front line, José Manuel Barroso is relishing having more time to reflect

Universities in Europe have much to learn from their US counterparts when it comes to celebrating the quality of their teaching and research, according to a former president of the European Commission.

José Manuel Barroso, former prime minister of Portugal, became Commission president in 2004 and held the post for a decade. He now plans to divide his time between universities in Europe and the US.

In addition to new roles at the University of Geneva and the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon, Professor Barroso has been appointed Frederick H. Schultz Class of 1951 visiting professor of international economic policy at Princeton University. It is at Princeton, he says, that he will spend most of his time.

Professor Barroso is no stranger to academia. After his time as a student (he is often described as having been a “Maoist radical” in his days as a student leader during the Portuguese revolution), he held posts as a teaching assistant in law at the University of Lisbon and in political science at Geneva.

“Higher education in Europe, I think it is good, generally speaking,” Professor Barroso told Times Higher Education. “But what we don’t have in Europe, which Americans have, are Ivy League schools.”

He said that, with the exception of Cambridge and Oxford, universities in Europe do not make the most of their strengths, unlike those elite US institutions.

While there is first-class research in Europe, Professor Barroso said, “the visibility is not there, because it is fragmented”. He added: “The idea of a European research base – let’s put it diplomatically – still has great potential.”

One reason Professor Barroso chose Princeton is its “amazing number of Nobel prizewinners”, which is indicative of the strength of the US academy, he believes. It is “not by coincidence” that you find some of the best European academics at US institutions, he noted.

Professor Barroso recounted an incident during his Commission presidency when he was asked why the best footballers in the world come to Europe but the best researchers go to America.

He invited every European Nobel laureate to a meeting to try to find the answer: “All of them, without exception, had spent some time in the States.”

One German laureate at the meeting reported having been told that he could no longer lecture in his native country because he was “too old”. “He was more than 70…but in the US, he said, he was received as a hero,” Professor Barroso recalled, adding that US institutions were, in his view, far more adaptable than their European counterparts, which tend to have less autonomy from government.

“One of the reasons I have agreed to work in the Catholic University in Lisbon is because it is not a public administration,” he said. “Many of our universities [in Europe] are bound by strict rules of public administration, and that makes things difficult.”

‘Nationalism is counterproductive’

In the UK, much of the talk about the EU revolves around a possible referendum on leaving the union. Unsurprisingly, Professor Barroso said he believed that a UK exit would be “extremely negative”.

“I’ve always been a strong supporter of the role of Britain in the EU. It’s one of the most open countries in the world, with a great tradition of cosmopolitanism. Sometimes it is difficult for me to see a country so open to the world seemingly so closed to Europe,” he said.

“The world is becoming difficult to manage, and…it is obvious that Europe and its citizens can see their interests and values better protected and promoted if we stay together.”

When asked about the progress made in European programmes relating to higher education during his time as president, such as the Bologna Process and Europe 2020, Professor Barroso said he was “not completely satisfied”.

“To be fair, I think there was important progress,” he continued. “But I am not completely happy. I continue to see a lot of nationalistic resistance that I believe is counterproductive. Because of the financial crisis, some governments cut investment in education, science and culture. It is not smart to cut sources of growth.”

Despite frustration at the lack of progress on some projects, he remains “very proud” of Horizon 2020, a research and innovation initiative that was designed to fund €80 billion (£59 billion) of research projects between 2014 and 2020. The project is “good for the academic community”, Professor Barroso said, and a valuable opportunity that the UK could miss out on if it were to leave the EU.

Professor Barroso said he is content to be away from the political front line and in a role where he has “time and perspective” to reflect on recent European developments. “I don’t know if I’m an accidental academic or an accidental politician,” he added. “But to have the opportunity to come and go from these different fields is extremely rewarding from a personal point of view.”

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