European universities are failing to develop future academic leaders because policies aimed at commercialising higher education are distracting them from their core role.
José María Sanz Martínez, rector of the Autonomous University of Madrid, told delegates at the European University Association's conference in Aarhus, Denmark, that institutions of higher education were the primary source of talent, creativity and research skills - "critical resources to any economy, and particularly to the knowledge economy we have now".
But, he continued, the Western world was losing some of its prominence in academic leadership. Between 1996 and 2008, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Russia all lost ground in terms of their share of international publications, Professor Martínez noted.
To regain their positions, European universities should shrug off government pressure to diversify and focus instead on the work they were established to do, he said.
"Policymakers have to strengthen the ability to produce and attract smart people and (must) stop distracting universities from their core missions," Professor Martínez told delegates at last week's event.
"We are being pushed to direct our efforts to other activities such as technology transfer and relationships with companies. We should do (that), but we should not forget that our core mission is the generation of talent, knowledge and research."
Babette Simon, rector of the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany, warned that the success of European society would depend on strong leadership in higher education ensuring that the research sector advances knowledge. To underline the urgency of the matter, she noted that demographic trends were already suggesting that Germany, for example, is "running out of scientists".
Build a career path
A simple way to improve opportunities, Professor Simon suggested, would be a pan-European agreement on a transparent, four-stage career structure: doctoral student, postdoctoral researcher, independent researcher and, finally, professor.
She went on to say that to reach as many potential researchers as possible, the career structure should ideally encompass schoolchildren. She proposed adding "pupil" and "student" as the two earliest stages on the research career ladder.
"We have to think differently. We have to start the training in schools. That's important: (that's where) people are curious about things and you can grasp them for research."
To ensure their long-term health, universities also needed to bring in more family-friendly policies, which would also help them increase the number of women in senior roles, Professor Simon said.
"If we want (academia) to be attractive for young people, we have to make it possible to combine family and research. Education is the soul of society, and we have a responsibility for the future. Think of the demographic situation - if we were more family friendly, maybe things would change."
Pam Fredman, vice-chancellor of the University of Gothenburg, agreed that universities should overhaul the traditional academic career path so "you're not 45 years old before you have a career programme because that's not good for families".
'Big is beautiful': Size is essential to give undergraduates an experience of learning and research
Only large universities have the resources necessary to integrate research and teaching in the curriculum, the European University Association conference heard.
Tim O'Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh, argued that institutions ought to view all undergraduates as "learner researchers". "That means we must have large, broad academic areas and large institutions."
Professor O'Shea told the audience of European university rectors that if an institution had fewer than 20,000 students and staff, it would be too small to offer a research-based undergraduate curriculum. "Small is very difficult for universities, but big is beautiful. My view is that universities need to be broad and encompass all the disciplines."
His own university - Edinburgh - is a member of the UK's Russell Group of large research-intensive universities and has about 25,000 students.
In France, to better connect teaching and research in the curriculum, universities and grandes écoles have begun forming themselves into clusters, the conference was told.
Louis Vogel, head of France's Conference of University Presidents and president of the University of Paris II-Panthéon-Assas, said: "We have the best students in schools where we do not have the best researchers. The whole thing is about breaking down barriers, but it's very hard. We're trying to arrange everything to recreate the university as it should be."
Professor O'Shea argued that learning through research should be a key component of degree courses as it helps engage students. "Undergraduate students (at Edinburgh) have the possibility of addressing real problems, not ones that have already been solved. If they are very successful, they have the opportunity to publish or to advance straight to PhD. We can offer our students a genuine possibility of being independent learner researchers."
Bert Vandenkendelaere, chair of the European Students' Union, agreed that undergraduate research could benefit students and lecturers, but he said the pressure to publish often squeezed out teaching.
He called for university league tables to include "teaching innovation" ratings to guide students to the best institutions.