EU institute starts to take shape

August 3, 2007

The Council of Ministers plans to fund an EU technology institute. Keith Nuthall and Christopher Jones report

When the idea of creating a European Institute of Technology (EIT) was tabled by the European Commission last year, it provoked intense criticism among the European academic community. But 18 months after the first formal proposals were released, the EIT looks likely to be established.

The European Union's Council of Ministers has backed a draft regulation giving the EIT an initial €308.7 million (£206.9 million) seed budget over six years from January 2008, which the Commission wants expanded to !2.4 billion from a range of sources.

Behind the scenes, the European University Association (EUA) has been working with the Commission and the Council to secure changes to the EIT blueprint. And so far, its constructive agnosticism seems to have worked.

Speaking to The Times Higher, EUA deputy secretary-general for research and innovation John Smith said: "This is a high political initiative, and we had to ask whether we should oppose it or develop it in a way that is complementary to other institutions."

The EUA has targeted the nuts-and-bolts organisation of the EIT. The organisation will be based on "knowledge and innovation communities" (KICs). These will focus on priority research subject areas, with a distinct legal personality. They will be able to run courses, apply for research funds and form long-term relationships with industry.

One major initial concern was that faculties, rather than universities, would be formal partners running particular KICs. This was opposed because some universities have a limited number of strong faculties. Dr Smith said that giving a faculty special status "could weaken universities". The Commission has relented, and KIC partners will now comprise whole universities.

A second concern was about degrees. The Commission was initially keen for the EIT to award its own degrees, but this plan has now been scrapped because of concerns about weakening the authority of universities. KICs will run degree courses, but qualifications will be awarded either by a participating university or by joint ventures of two or more higher education institutions.

This leaves a third (and probably the most significant) concern - money. The European Commission has claimed that the €308.7 million seed capital is "unallocated" rainy-day money secreted in the EU budget for 2007-13. This has satisfied most member states, although the British Government has requested information on what other projects the cash might otherwise have funded if not spent on the EIT.

However, it is the final projected !2.4 billion EIT budget that is least clear. The European Commission wants this found from EU "structural" regional development funds, member states' own budgets and the private sector. But since the EU would only control a third of this money, there are concerns about whether ultimately this additional money will ever be secured.

What is clear is that the EUA and others do not want money diverted from the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). This includes funding for the popular European Research Council (ERC) and existing EU lifelong-learning programmes. Indeed, the EIT is expected to bid for FP7 funds. "We don't want transfers from the framework programme," Dr Smith said.

This concern was underlined by Katrien Maes, executive director for the League of European Research Universities (LERU). "Although a budget has been discussed that the Council is willing to fund, it's not at all clear where that money is coming from," Dr Maes said.

She would far rather see EIT funding spent on the ERC, which funds basic research of all kinds and whose direction is determined by EU academics rather than by Commission and Council diktat. "We think the ERC is a wonderful initiative and money well spent. At the earliest opportunity, the ERC should be more appropriately funded," she said.

Even if the EIT's budget can be squared, there are many detailed issues regarding the institute's operation to be resolved. One is governance. The EUA is pressing for the EIT to have an independent board of governors like the ERC and for board member selection to mirror ERC procedures.

Here, an "identification committee" appointed by the Commission called for nominations for board members from universities and other institutes and research organisations. These suggestions were vetted by the committee and whittled down to 22 for final approval. The key, said Dr Smith, was the involvement of higher education and research stakeholders and independence from the horse-trading of member states.

There is also a question of how the EIT would secure and award money. As an EU institution, there is understandable concern that EIT projects might have first call on Framework Programme money, over and above independent European universities. Legal guarantees have yet to be secured on this issue.

David Livesey, secretary-general of LERU and a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, said a major problem with the ERC was the bureaucratic approach to funding applications, and he would not want these faults transferred to the EIT. "There has just been a call for applications for funding from the ERC that stipulates that it must involve six different organisations from six different member states - a form of geographical political correctness that we don't see in the US, for example," he said.

"The funding by the EIT is likely to be allocated in the same way. If we want progress, we have to be able to back excellence wherever it might be.

"Yet these restrictions mean that we could find that excellent proposals are not receiving European money because they do not meet the criteria, while projects that are not good enough to receive funding from other sources could be able to get EU funding if they are prepared to make the effort to work across borders."

The European Parliament is currently examining and amending the EIT proposals.

Reino Paasilinna, the Finnish MEP who drafted the European Parliament's report on the EIT, is adamant that there will be no grandiose campus-style university. "The EIT as a 'seat' should have no more than 60 or so permanent employees, including a board of directors drawn from academia, business and elsewhere," he said.

He added that he expected the fledgling EIT to start work in January 2008, with its first task the creation of a board of directors, although the real work of the institute is unlikely to begin until at least 2010, when it could have a more permanent base.

Many MEPs want to see the EIT based in Strasbourg at the European Parliament building - allowing them to end their monthly trek from Brussels - but the Polish city of Wroclaw is emerging as the most likely candidate. It is close to major research clusters in Central European cities such as Prague, Berlin and Vienna, and is easily accessible from the rest of the EU.

Taken together, all these concerns raise the question: is the EIT actually a good idea? Dr Livesey said that the EIT "could be a fantastic success" since there was nothing like it elsewhere in the world. But he said it was a "hugely risky" project.

Dr Maes fears the EIT could become a "top-down" organisation, with research projects and priorities being set by a powerful board of governors, themselves subject to direction by the Commission and EU ministers. "The way the best research comes out is to let researchers do what they do best," she said. "Usually this involves a lot of flexibility, independence and serendipity."

Mr Paasilinna is keener and rejects suggestions that the EIT will undermine existing research funding. He was also scathing about complaints from British academics.

"Britain has many great universities, but let's not forget that the UK has failed to meet EU targets for investment in R&D research - only my own country, Finland, and Sweden have done this," he said. "It is true that much of the work of the EIT is already being done by universities in the UK but, frankly, they have not done it well enough. We need a bigger institution to attract more innovation."

Dr Smith is steering a middle line. He sees an opportunity for the EIT to create "added value" in addition to existing EU research collaboration programmes, especially regarding long-term links between industry and higher education. Some such relationships are already in place, he said, but the EIT could generate more. "This kind of process can only be strengthened by the sharing of knowledge," he said.

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