Figel : Get a grip or be 'beautiful museums'

May 19, 2006

EU Commissioner for Education gives universities a stark warning, writes David Haworth from Brussels

Europe's universities could become "beautiful museums" unless they get to grips with serious systemic faults in the sector, warns Jan Figel, the European Union Commissioner for Education, Training and Multilingualism.

Mr Figel last week published a blueprint for Europe's 4,000 universities, which boast more than 17 million students and 1.5 million staff, 435,000 of whom are researchers. The document makes nine points:

* Geographic and inter-sectoral barriers between universities must be broken down

* Universities should get more autonomy and accountability

* Improved partnership structures between universities and business are needed

* Universities should teach a mix of skills that better reflect the needs of the EU labour market

* States should target cash on research, student support and institutions using international benchmarking, while universities should take greater responsibility for long-term financial sustainability

* Universities should mix and match more disciplines in teaching and research and pursue greater interdisciplinarity

* There should be a more fluid sharing of knowledge between centres of learning and society

* A review of the opportunities provided at postgraduate level should be conducted because of the risks of over-narrow focuses

* The EU should be a more appealing place in which to research, study and teach, to avoid losing talent.

Mr Figel said that although the Commission was not directly involved in modernising universities, it could act as a catalyst, providing political impetus and targeted funding to support reform. "The Europeanisation of our universities is speeding up. Many would say they aren't doing so quickly enough given the global competition we face. But look at the Erasmus programme, for example - it started in 1987 with 140 students, and it now embraces 144,000 students. And the Lisbon Process is growing exponentially.

"Furthermore, no one questions the place of education in the Lisbon Process - something that started in 1999. Mentally and politically, the situation is much better than it was a decade ago."

The fact that the inspiration for the paper came from last October's EU summit in Hampton Court reflects a growing governmental awareness that tertiary education is a subject that has elbowed its way on to the agenda.

Mr Figel compared the 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product spent on research in the EU with the US's 2.7 per cent. But he took inspiration from Nordic members, which spend more than 3 per cent.

If the EU failed to speed reform, he said, the worst-case scenario would be "industry going to China, services to India and agriculture to Brazil" and universities becoming "beautiful museums".

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