Continental European university model ‘under pressure’

Institutions need to be excellent across the board to attract leading researchers, analysis warns

March 22, 2017
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Elite continental European universities could find it “increasingly difficult to compete” with their US and UK counterparts as leading mobile academics prefer to work at institutions that boast excellent research across the board, according to an analysis led by an expert adviser to the European Commission.

Andrea Bonaccorsi, professor of economics and management at the University of Pisa and a prolific government adviser on research policy, told Times Higher Education that the continental European university model, typified by expertise in a few disciplinary areas, was “under pressure”.

The analysis, which focuses on the physical sciences, engineering and areas such as economics rather than the humanities and social sciences, uses a new measure of research excellence, defined as being in the top decile for publications and citations, as well as featuring strongly in impactful journals, in at least one of 14 disciplinary fields.

Relatively few continental European universities have “excellent” research, it finds. France and Italy boast just two universities whose research is considered excellent, while Germany and Spain have none. The UK and the Netherlands both contain eight each.

Meanwhile, the US has 49 universities deemed excellent compared with 20 in Europe (excluding the UK).

Significantly, several US universities excel in multiple fields – there are eight areas of excellence at Harvard University, seven at the University of Michigan, and six at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley – while only one continental European university, ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, is excellent in more than two areas.

This model of “distributed excellence” across Europe could suffer as footloose researchers gravitate to universally excellent universities, the paper suggests.

“Universities with a majority, or a large number, of top-level scientific fields are much more attractive than average universities with one or two world-level spikes,” the paper, “The solitude of stars. An analysis of the distributed excellence model of European universities”, published in the Journal of Informetrics, says. In this scenario, Continental European universities "will find it increasingly difficult to compete at the top", the paper says. On the other hand, the European model involves many more universities in the “international scientific competition”, it points out.

This analysis is the latest salvo in a long-running debate over whether countries should concentrate research into a few world-leading universities. Last year, the European Commission voiced concerns in a report that, although the European Union now creates more scientific publications than the US, it still lags behind when it comes to producing “the very best science”.

Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, said that the analysis was “on to something in saying that very top universities of the US type are more attractive to researchers in terms of research status and culture, especially to the minority [who] habitually work across disciplines”.

But for most researchers, “discipline remains much stronger than institution”, he added. There are “plenty of outstanding people in Europe who feel no need to move”, not least because some were put off by aspects of life in the US such as gun culture, he said.

Some European countries have tentatively tried to move towards what the paper calls an “Anglo-Saxon” model of more stratified universities. Germany has tried to stimulate the development of ‘world-class universities’ through its Excellence Initiative, Professor Marginson explained, but also focused on more traditional discipline-led centres of excellence, making it a “compromise between the two polar approaches”.

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that, in Europe, “nodes of often discipline-based scientific productivity emerged in some universities more or less through the happenstance of talented academics able to draw colleagues and funding. Seldom was this part of a university-wide plan or government policy.”

But, he added, the US, and to some extent the UK, had a much longer history of “university-wide thinking”.

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