The Higher Education and Research system: A pillar for the growth of knowledge society

January 8, 2003

Brussels, 07 Jan 2003

A group of high-level experts, STRATA-ETAN has published a prospective study on the major challenges facing Higher Education (HE) and research in Europe entitled 'Foresight for the development of higher education/research relations in the perspective of the European Research Area (ERA)'.

In a foreword, Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for Research outlines the context in which the report was conceived: 'The 21st century starts with the feeling, shared by a growing number of citizens, for a need for more operational training, nearer the labour market, but at the same time more responsible and more citizen oriented. European Universities must respond to the challenge'.

The report details the main issues and trends for higher education/research (HE/R) in a social, economic and cultural context. Some of the issues addressed include:

-The rise of globalisation and market forces which have led to educational systems gradually losing their function as central agents of national integration and thus causing a transnational convergence of the HE/R system;

- The rise of knowledge society, which means, above all, the proportion of time available for education and leisure is significantly increasing; the need for more high-level job qualifications;

- Demographic changes in Europe in terms of an aging;

- The confidence crisis in science and education and the paradoxical way in which science and education are expected to resolves problems in society.

Among the challenges highlighted by the report is the problem of the increasing numbers of students in the system with diversity in age, gender and background. With scarcer resources for higher education institutions, students are regarded as a critical source of income both directly and indirectly, which inevitably leads to an increased sense of competition. This certainly heightens the sense of consumerism in the educational environment and causes a dilemma for HE institutions and universities whose intent of providing 'a quality learning environment' is seriously threatened, as resources have to be spread out a lot more.

Not only does this responsiveness to market demands lead to competition, it has also affected higher education in terms of curricula, teaching methods, access and relationship to external partners. More emphasis has been placed on competency-based education, professionalisation and employability in curricula. While the report recognises the benefits of this trend (more project based learning is stimulated), it also cites the dangers of a more industrialised system: Being more responsive means making difficult choices such as developing applied research and development activities at the expense of basic and focusing less on academic or discipline-driven research issues and more focus on problem-based, interdisciplinary research.

Another development in the HE/R system, highlighted by the report, is accountability at all levels. The participation of multiple actors in the HE/R system tends to make it difficult to '[...]determine the appropriate organisational level at which accountability should be managed and promoted: Individual? Departmental? Faculty? Institution-wide? Regionally? Or nationally? Or at EU level?' This situation according to the report, leads to confusion about the governance structures and practices of these institutions.

The report goes on to outline the possible attitudes taken by policy-makers towards the trends abovementioned. In parallel, the report describes three possible scenarios to demonstrate the causal dimension of current and future trends. The report emphasises the fact that policy makers have the choice and can make any of these scenarios a reality.

Mr Busquin, in his foreword, describes how the report's scenarios should help in consolidating a knowledge-based society in Europe, 'The foresight approach has produced some scenarios of possible futures. These scenarios should be used, both at the European and national level, to define better policies and actions to be implemented in achieving the goals laid down at the Lisbon Council.'

While the first two scenarios, 'Melting Pot' and 'Market-Triumph', depict a less rosy picture of the future of the HE/R system in Europe, where 'laissez-faire' attitudes and marketisation continue to dominate the HE/R system, the third scenario outlines a more proactive system, making education a democratic right and focusing on the basic competencies and knowledge that are needed throughout life. The 'Creative-Society' scenario, according to the report, works on the premise that '[...] universities and public research centres are in the best position to respond to collective scientific and technological needs. Whereas research centres from the private sector are in the best position to respond to the technological innovation needs of companies'.

The report finishes with several recommendations to ensure a bright future for higher education and research in the European Research Area context. Among the many important guidelines, the report highlights the need. 'To consolidate the results of previous studies and to develop studies and research on Higher Education/research relations in the 6th FP [...] Further research on Foresight in this area is essential to build more relevant and efficient higher education systems in the ERA perspective.' The report goes on to recommend dedicating one of the work programmes to research on curriculum development, teaching methods and faculty development as well as stressing the need for public/private financing in order to maintain accessibility, quality and the independence of the European Higher Education and Research system.

The STRATA-ETAN expert group was set up in December 2001 with the mission to prepare a report on options to support European cooperation in foresight for the development of HE/R relations in the perspective of the European Research Area. The group of international experts was composed of 21 members and was chaired by Maurice Godelier and the rapporteur was Etienne Bourgeois.

For more information about the report, please visit:
http://www.cordis.lu/rtd2002/foresight/r eports.htm

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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