Brussels, 26 Jul 2006
The reworked proposal by the European Commission on the European Institute of Technology (EIT) is more focused, according to EuroScience, but still fails to provide clarity on the role of the institution within the currently 'fragmented' European higher education area, and on the implementation of its 'Knowledge Communities'. Rather than 'proposing new institutions that still raise more questions than answers', the association for the promotion of science and technology calls for policy efforts to focus on the European Research Council (ERC).
Originally proposed in 2005, the EIT is envisaged as a flagship project for promoting excellence in higher education, research and innovation in the EU. At their Council meeting in March, European leaders invited the Commission to continue to flesh out the plans in more detail. Early proposals for the EIT met with criticism from universities. On 8 June the Commission published a communication taking on board many of the comments received during the consultation, clarifying the structure and function of the Institute.
In a discussion paper published on 17 July, the association for the promotion of science and technology points to the need to consider the role and ambition of the EIT proposal within the broader context of a European higher education infrastructure. European universities are on a whole underperforming, which EuroScience argues, needs to be rectified if the EU is to achieve its objective of creating a knowledge-based society by 2010. This involves retaining the best brains in Europe and thinking less terms of national champions.
The European university system is also fragmented. 'Universities in the new Member States have gone through and are still often going through difficult transitions [...]. And while university reforms have taken hold e.g. in several Northern and Northwestern European countries, universities in many countries are still wrestling with very large student numbers, antiquated facilities, dispersed research capabilities and tight government control,' reads the discussion paper. Some of these problems could be overcome, suggests EuroScience, with the better use of Structural Funds, and enhanced cooperation between national governments and the Commission. A single EIT would not be capable of tackling these various problems, argues the discussion paper.
These concerns would appear to be taken up by the Commission's latest EIT proposal, which takes note of a recent communication adopted by the Commission outlining ideas to address the deficits in governance and funding, as well as the fragmentation of higher education.
On the creation of 'Knowledge Communities' (KCs), which would bring together universities, research organisations, industry and regional authorities, EuroScience welcomes the dropping of the 'unrealistic' proposal that participating university departments would no longer be part of their home institutions but become legally part of the EIT.
Also welcomed is the adoption in the latest proposal of a combined top-down and bottom-up approach to the selection process of KCs. This would mean that teams and departments from the academic, research and business sectors would come together themselves and create potential partnerships in selected fields, while a Governing Board would be established to decide the criteria for selection, including such elements as an excellent research, education and innovation agenda in the selected field.
However, in spite of what it acknowledges as improvements, EuroScience raises doubts as to whether KCs could be realistically operational. '[W]hy would geographically widely dispersed [...] Knowledge Communities, governed at a distance by some Board of Governors, be an effective and efficient way of developing technologies and innovations?' asks the discussion paper. It goes on to note that 'virtual organisations' already exist, comprising universities, companies and research institutes collaborating on a strategic technology base for the next wave of innovations. The paper refers to the Dutch Leading Technology Institutes or Inter University Micro Elecectronics Center (IMEC) in Belgium, which, it says are proven examples of public and private partners managing and organising their resources and activities effectively.
EuroScience also has an opinion on the relationship between the EIT and the European Research Council (ERC). The paper claims that the Commission's latest EIT proposal implies 'preferred relations' with the ERC. This is out of the question, according to EuroScience. 'The ERC funds research within its remit, wherever it comes from. Individual universities and institutes have their own strategic goals, which the ERC will be aware of in a general way when it establishes its own strategic funding framework. That should suffice.'
On the financing of the EIT, EuroScience argues that it should not take away from the European Research Council (ERC), which should be the highest priority. '[P]olicy attention and money should not be diluted by proposing new institutions that still raise more questions than answers.
'And while the EIT might give some added stimulus to university/industrial partnerships, it would seem more important that the Commission, and more particularly, the Heads of Government, address the fiscal situation and the lack of risk capital in Europe for it to get back on track to achieving the Lisbon objectives,' it adds.
The discussion paper concludes by reiterating EuroScience's position that more could be achieved through the better use of Structural Funds for technology transfer than the creation of the EIT.