Narrow targets could expand results

June 8, 2001

Boris Segerstahl looks at ways in which European research universities can compete globally.

Europe's research universities have entered a new era of competition and challenges as fresh demands are put on their ability to produce top-quality research while maintaining a steady output of academic degrees. This situation is caused partly by increased competition for resources, partly by new demands on research productivity and partly by a need for each university to play a more active role in the European academic network.

For more than two centuries, European universities have been tuned to the long-term needs of society. Today, short-term needs are the main criterion when resources are allocated to the academic sector. These needs change so rapidly that universities have difficulties responding. There are several reasons for this situation. Research funding in Europe is targeted at applied projects that have to show immediate benefits to what is called "the global economic competitiveness of Europe". Basic research and applied research in social sciences, where economic value cannot be measured, compete for a shrinking part of available funding.

There is nothing wrong in supporting applied research leading to economic payback within a few years. The danger is that cultural identity and the long-term knowledge base of Europe are diluted if basic sciences are undernourished and treated as a luxury inherited from the previous century. What might be forgotten when financial returns are overemphasised is that, in the long run, economic competitiveness is based on intellectual competitiveness.

A common problem in Europe is that academic budgets are shrinking in real terms. Some countries have reached a point where the quality of the national university system is threatened. Universities have dealt with this situation by increasing their dependence on research grants from public and private sources. However, funding for teaching is shrinking and demands on research output are increasing. At the same time, scientific work is becoming more expensive. In this situation, big universities have an advantage as their resource base is broader than that of small and young universities.

There are three ways to improve the situation: increase funding; create a small elite of big research universities; or support specialised university networks. The easiest solution would be for national governments to increase funding. The research effort in the European Union is 1.8 per cent of GDP while the United States is spending 2.8 per cent and Japan 2.9 per cent. Political priorities in Europe seem to be such that this is doomed to remain an empty hope. Universities have to restructure their teaching and research so that existing resource levels can be used in the most efficient way. The second alternative is to create an elite group of research universities and concentrate high-quality research in these, while creating a second layer of teaching universities. This might look attractive measured in productivity terms. It is, however, not a good alternative if we consider the importance of the broad educational responsibilities of universities.

Universities have to maintain a balance between research and education of equally good quality. Another important aspect of university education is that it plays an important role in regional development. Many studies have shown that a research university is one of the most important driving forces behind regional development, so a regionally dispersed network of good universities is needed.

The third, and probably best alternative is to increase competitiveness by creating networks of universities that are very strong in narrow fields of research and teaching. Many universities' departments would have to close while resources are added to other departments. Not an easy process. In many cases it has been impossible. Specialisation is, however, one of the few feasible ways forward if we want to support a broad network of research universities.

This process should not lead to a concentration of research to a few elite universities. It could create broad networks of centres of excellence, ideally with participation from several European countries. By focusing on niches of excellence, small and new universities can, within their networks, contribute to high-quality research and deliver good teaching.

It is important to remember that Europe's university system is extremely good, producing a third of the world's scientific knowledge. This potential has to be increased and exploited. Europe has unique strengths and weaknesses. Multicultural and multilingual environments cause transaction costs for joint European research activities. At the same time, the cultural diversity in Europe can create new insight into research problems of crucial importance. For example, research into the human dimensions of global change benefits enormously from a multicultural context that should be easier to create in Europe than in the US.

The international dimension is the most demanding challenge and opportunity. The EU's framework programmes seem to take universities for granted. They are part of the national system of research and education in each member country and of no concern to the union as a whole. This attitude is apparent in the plans for the future European research area. Consequently, it is up to the academic system to rise to the challenge and implement a restructuring that allows universities to benefit from emerging integrated research agendas. Otherwise, the political system will do it for them. That is not an attractive alternative for the majority of scientists and teachers.

Boris Segerstahl is director of the Thule Institute, University of Oulu, Finland.

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