Europe should copy ‘biodiversity’ of US universities – minister

The ‘huge repertoire’ of institutions in the US is a strength of the sector, but some are sceptical Europe has much to learn from it

May 27, 2022

European universities should have profiles as diverse as those of their US counterparts, the Dutch education minister has said.

Robbert Dijkgraaf talked up the strengths of the US sector at an event in Leiden, the Netherlands.

“There’s a huge amount of biodiversity,” said Professor Dijkgraaf, who served for a decade as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton before joining Mark Rutte’s Cabinet.

He said the autonomy afforded to leading US universities meant that there was a “huge repertoire” for students and researchers to choose from.

“One thing I love with the US is one university decides to go one direction and the other says, ‘I’ll go in another direction, good luck to you; this is our way.’

“That’s something we should also look at: how can we make sure we’re not all doing the same thing, that we diversify?” he said.

Speaking to Times Higher Education at the League of European Research Universities’ 20th-anniversary event, he said governments should incentivise diversification through collaborative funding programmes.

“I think actually this picking your own profile and collaboration are closely connected,” he said. “Anything we can stimulate to increase that biodiversity in the end increases the value of the system and makes it also more sustainable.”

Alain Beretz, professor emeritus and former president of the University of Strasbourg, agreed that diversification was important, but said Europe did not need to look across the Atlantic for models because the US system was “very much originated from Europe and not the other way round”.

He said it was important that funding did not encourage “competition between the diversities”, such as smaller technical or larger research-intensive universities.

“In the US, the universities depend a lot on their resources from the students or from the alumni – sometimes it comes to a competition between the universities; whereas in Europe the universities are mostly driven by government money,” he said.

Professor Dijkgraaf said the Netherlands had in the past used collaborative funding for specific disciplines to encourage universities to develop their own niches.

“The thing I want to be sure, like in the Netherlands, is that we’re able to keep up all that,” he told THE. “We want as a country to do everything, but not everyone has to do everything.”

Speaking at the event, he said he was “incredibly proud of what was happening in Europe” and that “the modern university is Europe’s gift to the world”.

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