Brussels, 28 Apr 2004
'We are at the crossroads of the debate on universities,' said EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin as he opened an international conference on the role of universities in Liège, Belgium, on 26 April.
Why this debate has arisen was explained by the Irish Minister for Education and Science, Noel Dempsey: 'There has been a recognition that the social and economic progress of the Union as a whole no longer relies on traditional factors. Acquiring, sharing and disseminating knowledge leads to success.'
Over 1,000 stakeholders gathered in Liège with the aim of both defining the role of universities, and forming a vision of university-based research for the future, and all were well aware of the importance of universities in today's knowledge-based society
This importance was underlined by Mr Busquin, who claimed that 'the future of Europe will depend on our ability to transmit knowledge to the younger generation, and the extent to which they can drive research and innovation.'
Europe is not the only region aware of the key role that universities play, and must therefore compete with countries around the world in the race to attract the best brains, display excellence, particularly in research, and adapt what is produced by universities to the needs of industry.
Mr Dempsey outlined two additional challenges, the meeting of which will influence the results of this race: accelerating the rate of change within universities to match ambitions and identifying the funding priorities. An additional challenge, unique to Europe, is ensuring that changes are implemented at the same rate across the whole of the continent in order to avoid amplifying existing disparities.
Speakers addressed the lack of funding for universities, several calling on the private sector to do more. Indeed, Mr Dempsey claimed that the main reason for the difference in funding levels between the EU and the US is due to private funding - widespread in the US, but frequently lacking on this side of the Atlantic.
Attaining money is not, however, the only problem. The way that funding is spent also influences how successful a university is. The conference heard calls for more autonomy for universities in this respect, particularly from Michel Rocard, a French MEP.
Several speakers also called for universities to take on more responsibility for their survival. 'It should be made crystal clear to universities that their role should be to help turn knowledge into revenue. This is what the funding is for,' said Maria van der Hoeven, the Dutch Minister for Education, Culture and Science, who will take over the chair of the EU Competitiveness Council on 1 July.
José Mariano Gago, a former Portuguese science and technology minister, and current President of his country's Laboratory for Particle Physics, called on universities to develop a political role, and to help organise the scientific community.
He also said that universities must be more self-critical. 'Universities cannot stay as they are. There is too much conservatism. They need tension and division. Some colleagues will not want this change, and will be unwilling to act, but if they don't change, universities won't have this [political] role. Some will, but not universities as such.'
Attracting the brightest students and researchers was seen by many as crucial to ensuring excellence. But, as Helga Nowotny, chair of the EU's research advisory board (EURAB) made clear, 'if we want to attract students from other parts of the world, we must first get our own house in order.'
'More fundamental than attracting the best brains is retaining our own,' said Mr Dempsey. He voiced the suspicion that Europe's brain drain is caused by the way that young researchers are treated here. It is much easier to get tenure at a university in the US, and perhaps more importantly, to hold it. The situation in Europe means that 'we are restricting mobility and opportunities for our bright young graduates,' said Mr Dempsey.
While echoing calls for change within European higher education, Professor Nowotny also warned against trying to impose one model on Europe's universities: 'The risk of gathering so many experts is that each may have a different model in their head of how universities should work. This model is usually the one we're used to. We must all accept that there is not one correct model. We must all adopt a more holistic approach.'
Of course, a conference on the role of universities, which are traditionally responsible for conducting basic research, would not be complete without a discussion on proposals for a European Research Council (ERC).
Professor Nowotny had another warning in relation to the ERC: 'In this debate I have observed many times that this is the miracle cure for all problems that beset universities. Let me issue a warning here. It is not a miracle cure, and cannot make up for structural deficits or a lack of national funding. It will, however, have a positive influence on excellence if it comes about.'
Professor Gago reiterated his plea for autonomy, saying that an ERC should not be restricted to the role of advisory board, but should extend to that of policy player.
Ms van der Hoeven, to whom all supporters of the ERC will turn in the second half of 2004 when she steers discussions on the proposals, referred to the ERC as 'simply a must'. 'I hope the Council of Ministers will be able to give the Commission guidance on the ERC,' she said.
For further information on the conference, please consult the following web address: