Europe's protectionist focus on public-financed universities would lead to stagnation, the head of the Australian-based Global University Alliance warned last week.
Terry Hilsberg accused Europeans of being stuck in the "agrarian socialist phase of higher education". He told the World Education Market in Lisbon:
"The private sector is garnering much of the growth in higher education because the public sector is asleep at the wheel."
With the exception of the UK and Scandinavia, most of western Europe was not involved in higher education trade, he said. But deflationary forces in the world market were spreading and European universities would have to look outwards for income to survive.
In Australia, the drop in public funding had forced universities to become entrepreneurial "just to stand still". Overseas students and off-shore campuses were part of this process but new technology meant universities could move their activities to where they were less costly and more efficient. Meanwhile, public-sector staff were moonlighting in the private sector and were reducing private-sector risk.
Mr Hilsberg's gung-ho approach to globalisation met with stiff resistance from European academics, although all agreed that Europe needed to be more competitive.
Speakers, delegates and exhibitors at the learning-technology event were optimistic, however, that Europe had something unique to offer. They emphasised the ethical and quality values of the traditional European model of higher education.
Erwin Wagner, president of the European Distance Learning Network, said universities were at a crossroads because they had to decide whether to educate students as individuals or for the workforce.
Roberto Carneiro, former Portuguese education minister said that education was not just about spreading knowledge but about learning and human relationships. "Can a multicultural world find support in standardisation of education and an industrial mode of provision?" he asked. "Globalisation is not a quick fix for education's pains."
Michael Gibbons, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said the most significant process affecting higher education was a change in thinking about good-quality teaching. "An academic can no longer have a cabinet full of ideas. We are moving into an era of research-based teaching," he said.
Wem director Elaine Legault said the forum and exhibition had shifted focus in its four years of existence, especially with the move from Vancouver to Lisbon last year. There was a smaller North American and Asian presence with the decline of the dotcoms, the events of September 11 and the knock-on effect of severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (Sars).
But Wem still attracted 2,000 participants and 350 exhibitors. It worked with the European Commission to showcase research projects, the e-portal and the Learning Citizen Network.
Ms Legault said the top-down model of education technology was slowly being pushed aside and making way for a more considered approach. "The Italians are competing head on with the US in terms of e-learning platforms that are highly rated internationally because they have thought about content and lateral learning."