Commission launches debate on how to turn European universities into a "world-class reference"

February 6, 2003

Brussels, 5 February 2003

Today in Brussels, the Commission published a Communication on the role of universities in the Europe of knowledge, as part of an initiative instigated by European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin and Education and Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding. European universities face great challenges posed by the development of the knowledge-based society and economy, the need to increase the levels of education and higher training in all member states and the drive to realise the European Research Area. Universities are centres of advanced training, research and local development, and the EU needs a healthy university system, as recognised by the European Council in Barcelona in March 2002, which called for European systems of education to become a "world reference" by 2010. The Communication invites interested parties to join a debate on key issues for higher education, such as funding, autonomy, professional standards, how to attain and sustain excellence, the contribution to local and regional growth, and how to achieve the European higher education and research areas.

Education and Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding said: "We have to maintain excellence in our universities, and avoid their being relegated to the second division. If we do not think now about how to support universities for the future, tomorrow it will be too late."

"If we want to be a leading player in the global knowledge-based society, Europe has to nurture its universities," said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "Universities are centres of research and education and poles of regional economic development at the same time. Investing in universities is one of the best investments we can make for our future."

The need for a debate

The Communication seeks to start a debate on the role of universities (or rather all higher education establishments such as "Fachhochschulen", polytechnics and "Grandes Ecoles") within the knowledge-based society and economy in Europe. The debate will focus on how they will be able to effectively play their key role.

There are some 3300 higher education establishments in the European Union, and approximately 4000 in Europe as a whole, taking into account institutions in other Western European and Candidate countries. They accept an increasing number of students, over 12.5 million in 2000, compared with fewer than 9 million a decade earlier.

Why the effort at European level?

The European university landscape is primarily organised at national and regional levels. It is characterised by a high degree of heterogeneity, which is reflected in organisation, governance and operating conditions. However, European universities face common difficulties and a common need to adapt to an evolving context. Given their central role, creating a knowledge-based Europe is a source of opportunity for universities, but also presents major challenges.

Indeed universities conduct their business in a constantly changing and increasingly globalised environment, characterised by strong competition to attract and retain outstanding talent, and by the emergence of new requirements for which they have to cater. Yet European universities generally have less to offer and lower financial resources than their equivalents in the other non-EU countries, particularly the USA (see annex).

In this context, structural reforms, inspired by the process launched by the 1999 Bologna European Council, aim to organise diversity within a more coherent and compatible European framework. This is a condition for the accessibility and competitiveness of European universities both within Europe and throughout the world.

The European dimension

The knowledge economy and society is based on four interdependent elements:

    the production of knowledge, mainly through scientific research;

    its transmission through education and training;

    its dissemination through the information and communication technologies;

its use in technological innovation.

Universities are unique in that they participate in all of these processes, due to the key role they play in the fields of research and use of its results. This is partly due to industrial applications and spin-offs, resulting from market-oriented university activities; education and training, in particular training of researchers, and regional and local development, to which they can contribute significantly.

Invitation for a debate with universities and public authorities

The Communication identifies a number of areas that need reflection and action, and raises a series of questions such as:

  • how to achieve adequate and sustainable incomes for universities, and to ensure that funds are spent most efficiently;

  • how to ensure autonomy and professionalism in academic as well as managerial affairs;

  • how to concentrate enough resources on excellence, and create the conditions within which universities can attain and develop excellence;

  • how to make universities contribute better to local and regional needs and strategies;

  • how to foster, through all of these areas, the consistent, compatible and competitive European higher education area called for by the Bologna Declaration. And how to foster the European Research Area set out as an objective for the Union by the Lisbon European Council, in March 2000.
The next step

The Commission will review the state of the debate in the Summer of 2003, before the Summit of European Higher Education Ministers in Berlin, in September. Suitable initiatives will be identified and investigated by Education and Research Ministers.


European universities: insufficient resources

On average EU Member States spend 5% of their GDP on public expenditure for education as a whole. This figure is comparable to that of the USA and higher than Japan's (3.5%). Public expenditure, however, has not increased with GDP in recent years in Europe, and has even dropped over the past decade. Total expenditure on higher education alone has not increased in any Member State in proportion to the growth in the number of students. A substantial gap has opened up with the USA. The Union has seen expediture of 1.1% of GDP compared with double that 2.3% in the USA. This gap stems primarily from the low level of private largely family - funding of higher education in Europe. This stands at a meagre 0.2% of European GDP compared with 0.6% in Japan and 1.2% in the USA.

American universities have far more substantial means than European universities on average, two to five times higher spending per student. The resources brought by students themselves, including by the many foreign students, partly explain this gap. But American universities benefit both from a high level of public funding, including through research and defence credits, and from substantial private funding, particularly for fundamental research, provided by the business sector and philanthropic foundations. The big private research universities also often have considerable wealth, built up over time through private donations, particularly from graduate associations.

The growing under-funding of European universities jeopardises their capacity to attract and keep the best talent, and to strengthen the excellence of their research and teaching activities (1) . Given that it is highly unlikely that additional public funding can alone make up the widening shortfall, new ways have to be found of increasing and diversifying universities' income. The Commission plans to conduct a study on the funding of European universities in order to examine the main trends in this area and identify examples of best practice.

At the March 2002 Barcelona European Council, the Union set as its target to increase Europe's research effort to 3% of its GDP (2) . This implies a special effort as regards human resources for research, including in universities.

For further information please visit:
(1) The Commission sets out ideas for consideration and discussion on the matter of university funding in its Communications Investing efficiently in education and training: an imperative for Europe (COM(2002)779 of 10 January 2003) and More research for Europe: towards 3% of GDP ( COM(2002) 499 of 11.9.2002).
(2) European Commission, Communication More research for Europe: towards 3% of GDP, COM (2002) 499 of 11.9.2002.

DN: IP/03/194 Date: 05/02/2003

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