Empowered to innovate

Ahead of a meeting to draft a manifesto for Europe's academy, Jo Ritzen stresses the importance of autonomy

June 10, 2010

Europe is losing the battle for talent. International rankings show it clearly, but student flows are equally meaningful. In 2005, roughly four times as many students went from Europe (the UK excluded) to study in North America than the other way round. For those with experience in education, the picture is one of bright youngsters leaving Europe in search of lands more hospitable to their creativity.

Ahead are two alternative scenarios: a vibrant, creative Europe with reinvented, innovative universities acting as the main engines of progress (the positive case); or a stagnant Europe with bureaucratic, ill-financed universities in the role of mere observers in the process of shaping the world of tomorrow (the negative case).

The negative case is likely to prevail unless major steps are taken. Europe is enveloped in a public budget crisis that affects its ability to invest in education and research through state funds. It is also undergoing a demographic change, with decreasing numbers of young citizens who make up the typical age range for enrolling in university. And Europe is also experiencing serious difficulties in providing its citizens with what is needed in a knowledge-based globalising economy, ie, problem-solving technology and multiculturalism.

This looming crisis can be avoided with political acumen and social pressure. European universities are underfinanced compared with their international counterparts, which are widely seen as superior. The impact of the financial crisis has highlighted the fact that a publicly financed university system is not sustainable, especially where government debts have increased beyond sustainable levels. In those cases, universities need more room to raise private funds. Charging (higher) tuition fees is inescapable; and public funding should be changed to contain more incentives for universities to innovate in their approach to student learning.

Autonomy and accountability must be offered as a means to empower universities. As the Netherlands' minister for education and science, I found it difficult to surrender control over higher education because governments want to be able to interfere in the operation of universities in response to the complaints of voters. However, the country succeeded in giving full autonomy to public universities in 1994.

The wisdom of this decision is shown in the clear increase in the reputation of Dutch universities. Autonomy allows institutions to respond more directly to the needs of students and those of the labour market, and it increases the attention given by universities to innovation and internationalisation. Accountability is intimately connected to autonomy, granted by government on condition of clear responsibility with respect to the goals of the university. Accountability is also often applied to the process of education and research.

Higher education in Europe is overwhelmingly organised nationally. This is in contrast to the international labour market that our students will be entering. Hence, we need to bypass national systems of higher education. The Bologna Process has been an agent of change. However, reforms are still implemented in national frameworks, which hamper their potential effect. The speeding up and the internationalisation of the Bologna Process would serve to foster the influx into Europe of students from demographically young countries in the form of "brain circulation".

These arguments are mostly based on my personal experience. But any discussion of higher education with economists, academic leaders and politicians in Europe always leads to the same reform agenda, however diverse their personal experiences. This became even clearer while writing my book, A Chance for European Universities, which was discussed with many people with ample experience in the field.

It is for this reason that these higher education experts, along with others, will share their knowledge and experiences in Brussels on 15-16 June. The purpose of the meeting is to create a manifesto for the empowerment of European higher education. There is a dream as ancient as politics: that a serious discussion between competent and passionate people can propel events in the right direction. This is the dream that we will put on paper in Brussels.

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