Brussels, 21 Apr 2005
The European Commission has adopted a communication calling on Member States to introduce reforms that will allow Europe's universities to better contribute to the EU goal of becoming the world's most competitive knowledge-based economy.
'Mobilising the brainpower of Europe: enabling universities to make their full contribution to the Lisbon Strategy' follows up the Commission's 2003 communication on the role of universities in the Europe of knowledge, and the stakeholder consultation that followed. It warns that if action is not taken urgently, the current education and research investment gap between Europe and its leading competitors will continue to widen.
'[T]he communication adopted today emphasises that there are important weaknesses in the performance of European higher education institutions compared to those of our main competitors,' Education and Training Commissioner Ján Figel' told a press conference.
'Although the average quality of European universities is rather good, they are not in a position to deliver their full potential to boost economic growth, social cohesion and more and better jobs. The Commission invites national decision makers to set out measures that would enable universities to play a full role in the Lisbon Strategy,' continued Mr Figel'.
The communication identifies four key weaknesses, or 'bottlenecks', in the performance of Europe's universities. First, a tendency towards uniformity and egalitarianism means that many institutions stick to the same monodisciplinary programmes and methods, leading to the exclusion of those that do not conform to the standard model. Second, Europe's universities are too insular, with the result that they remain isolated from industry, leading to a lack of entrepreneurial skills among graduates, and ill preparedness for the worldwide competition for talent and resources.
Furthermore, over-regulation in the form of nationally defined courses and employment rules for academic staff, for example, hinders modernisation and efficiency, while inflexible admission and recognition of qualification rules impede mobility and lifelong learning, according to the Commission.
By far the biggest weakness in Europe's higher education system is under-funding, however. On average, EU countries spend just 1.1 per cent of GDP on higher education, compared with the 2.7 per cent of GDP that the United States invests in its universities. 'This is almost entirely due to much lower investment levels from industry and households in Europe,' says the communication. 'If Europe were to match the US figure, it would need to spend an additional 150 billion euro each year on higher education.'
In response, the communication urges national decision makers to acknowledge that closing this funding gap is a key precondition for achieving the Lisbon goals. Even in a modernised university system, which Europe is still some way from achieving, the Commission estimates that an investment of 2 per cent of GDP in higher education is a minimum requirement for a knowledge-based economy.
In more practical terms, national governments are urged to introduce rules that enable and encourage partnerships between business and universities. Where tuition fees are introduced, the communication adds, a substantial portion of the funds generated should be redistributed as income-dependent grants or loans aimed at guaranteeing access to all, or performance-related scholarships aimed at encouraging excellence.
The communication also sets out reform agendas aimed at enhancing the quality and attractiveness of universities, and improving governance in the areas of institutional and system management.
The Commission reveals that the communication will be complemented by a forthcoming action plan on university-based research, and finally, it calls on the Council to adopt a resolution backing its calls for new partnerships between state and universities, and for sufficient investment to allow for the modernisation of higher education in Europe.
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