Calling all eurocrats: direct funds can stop continental drift

EU statute for Europe's academy needed to arrest economic decline. Hannah Fearn reports

January 20, 2011

A leading academic has called for top European universities to be directly funded through the European Union in a bid to ensure that the Continent retains its competitiveness and economic power.

Jo Ritzen, president of Maastricht University and a former Dutch education minister, told Times Higher Education that European politicians were beginning to understand that member countries should work together to provide world-class university education.

"The Europe we all strive for is one of hope for future generations. That can only be done if we, as a very small continent, use our efforts efficiently and to the maximum," he said.

Dr Ritzen's vision is for a European statute for higher education that would provide top universities with central funding.

Although the institutions selected for the cash would remain nationally based and could still bid for local research funding in their own countries, they would receive finance from the EU to fund their student intake.

A key aim would be to increase student mobility, he added.

"For the students, it would be a European university and would be financed as such. The reason to do this is that you...create movement that also leads to incentives (to improve)," he explained.

Centralised funding for select institutions would make it easier for universities to cooperate and offer joint degrees delivered across two or more countries, argued Dr Ritzen, whose doctoral thesis focused on education and economic growth.

The move would ensure that the European academy remained a world-leading sector, helping to secure the future prosperity of EU member states, he said.

"We should really look at the way in which Europe can come higher (in the world university rankings) with fewer resources. Bringing things together would have this impact," he argued.

'Proxy for vitality'

Dr Ritzen said that although EU countries were "not doing badly", the economic growth rate in Europe was lagging behind some developing countries.

"We use economic growth as a proxy for vitality," he explained. "More exchange students and more international mobility would be very profitable. Those students who have been internationally mobile find themselves with better jobs, higher salaries and lower periods of unemployment."

Dr Ritzen said that Maastricht was not being rewarded financially for having many foreign students, but he believed it should be.

Some policymakers still asked "'why should you have all these (foreign) students?', but such grumbling goes against the grain of the long-term benefit for Europe, for students and even for individual countries", he said.

Neither existing exchange programmes nor the Bologna Process had delivered the student and academic mobility that had been hoped for, he said, so more direct action was now required.

Dr Ritzen believed that European politicians including Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, were interested in the proposal. He hoped that pilot schemes could be established to test it.

"There are signs that they are willing to move. The parliamentarians are taking it seriously," he said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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