Opportunity to rejuvenate

European universities should look to the US for a route back to excellence, argues Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño

December 22, 2011

Greece was home to the Academy founded by Plato in the 4th century BC, the first Western higher education institution. Bologna in Italy was the cradle of the first university in the 11th century. One millennium later, these two countries, along with the Republic of Ireland, Portugal and Spain, have seen their governments swept away by the current economic crisis. This also implies changes in the future political agendas for higher education, particularly given the significant cuts expected to public budgets. It is very likely that similar reforms and budgetary adjustments will occur in countries such as France and Belgium in the medium term. Inevitably, the economic interdependence within Europe will spread budgetary adjustments to most countries in the continent, including those that stand resilient today.

One of the most severely affected areas of austerity policies will certainly be public education. But, as well as posing threats, times of crisis bring many opportunities that could in fact help to rejuvenate Europe's universities.

Education is a public good but, in today's diverse and digitalised societies, it can be delivered at similar levels of excellence by both public and private institutions. In fact, Europe should look to the US as a reference point for a proper blend between private and public universities, where excellent institutions exist in both spheres. It would be desirable to see a European Ivy League existing in parallel with the best public universities in the continent.

At the same time, public universities will search for sources of income outside public coffers. In this vein, the reforms undertaken by the coalition government in the UK following the Browne Report, including the raising of tuition fees - even if contested and controversial - will probably be replicated in other European countries, where the gap between the cost and the price of higher education is much wider and the sustainability of the public university system is in doubt. The right financial package would bring additional financing for European universities, allowing them to match US institutions in terms of investment in research, investment per student and resources for teaching.

A good system of grants and loans is also needed, not only to encourage students to enroll at overseas universities, but to allow them to afford increasingly expensive fees.

If we compare the grants and loans offered by Europe and the US, it is clear that European students lag far behind their US counterparts, despite scholarship schemes recently launched by the EU. There is a real need for a European Sallie Mae - a US private provider of student loans - that could act as a large-scale lender to European students. Any new funding programmes would have to involve cooperation between the public and private sectors.

Greater availability of funding would help countries such as Italy or Spain - where public universities face serious structural financial problems - to catch up with the rest of the EU.

Given the expected increased span of professional lives, a degree is no longer seen as the only or last chance to experience education. That is how it should be: education should not be something at which people have only one shot; it should be extended over an entire professional career. Updating professional knowledge and skills is a continuing need. In this context, in future, the length of formal degrees will have to vary and adapt to students' needs.

Universities have traditionally been regarded as "reservoirs of knowledge" but, in times of crisis, societies demand that they act as bridges between the world of knowledge and the professions. Going back to Athens in Ancient Greece, the Agora and the Academy were located close to one another on the slopes of the Acropolis. This encouraged interaction between academics and businesspeople, as demonstrated in many intellectual contributions of that time, such as Plato's Dialogues. Today, more than ever, we need universities to renew their interaction with their stakeholders if we are to find ways out of the crisis.

Far from being part of the problem, European universities can become a catalyst for economic change and growth. Higher education in Europe can become a global reference point of excellence and innovation once again.

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