Commissioners launch debate on the role of universities

February 7, 2003

Brussels, 06 Feb 2003

Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin, and Commissioner for Education and Culture, Viviane Reding, held a joint press conference on 5 February to launch a debate on the role of universities in the Europe of knowledge.

The debate coincides with the publication of a Commission communication on the subject, which analyses the current state of higher education institutions in Europe, and examines the challenges facing them in the context of a Council decision in Barcelona in 2002 to make European education systems a 'world reference' by 2010.

'If we want to be a leading player in the global knowledge-based society, Europe has to nurture its universities,' said Commissioner 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.'

Higher education institutes in Europe are primarily organised at national and regional levels, yet many face challenges common to all universities in Europe.

One such challenge is how to focus enough resources on the development of excellence within institutions. As Commissioner Reding explained: '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.'

Another key issue is the question of how to achieve adequate and sustainable incomes for universities. Mr Busquin stated that: 'In the current period of economic difficulty, public funding [for higher education] is unlikely to increase. Therefore it is vital to try and stimulate private investment in universities.'

Indeed Commissioner Reding cited figures showing that Europe falls well behind its international competitors in terms of private - mainly family - funding of higher education. Private income for universities in Europe is a mere 0.2 per cent of GDP, compared with 0.6 per cent in Japan and 1.2 per cent in the US.

Such a gap in levels of investment, the Commission feels, jeopardises the capacity of European universities to attract and retain the best talent and to strengthen the excellence of their research and teaching activities.

Other questions to be addressed during the debate include how to ensure the autonomy and professionalism of institutions in academic as well as managerial affairs, how to make universities contribute more to local and regional needs and strategies, and how to foster the European higher education area called for by the Bologna declaration.

The outcome of the debate is designed to provide European policy makers with valuable information and strategies in preparation for the Council's spring summit, which will review progress towards achieving the Lisbon objectives on competitiveness, as well as a summit of European higher education Ministers to be held in Berlin in September, where initiatives will be identified and investigated.

On the same day that the Commission launched its debate on the role of universities, the French and UK Ministers for Education announced their support for the University of the Transmanche [cross-channel], a groundbreaking project developed by the University of Kent together with the three Lille Universities and the University of the Littoral.

According to Charles Clarke, the UK Secretary of State for Education: 'The Transmanche University paves the way for a direct relationship between colleges and university departments in the UK and France. This innovative scheme will support undergraduate, postgraduate and research programmes in both countries and will contribute to the economic development of regions on both sides of the English Channel.' The Commission communication on the role of universities will shortly be made available at the following web address: ltations/list_en.html

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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