Brussels, 23 Apr 2004
The 2003 Commission communication on 'The role of universities in the Europe of knowledge', along with the launch of the new Erasmus Mundus programme and discussions at national level on how to fund universities, has suddenly put these institutions, some of them hundreds of years old, in the spotlight.
As the final preparations were being made for an international conference, organised by the European Commission, on the role of universities in Europe, members of the education and scientific communities gathered in Brussels on 22 April for a Swiss Science Briefing on 'How to build a world-class university'.
Two principal speakers gave their different views on the essential ingredients for achieving excellence. Patrick Aebischer, President of the very successful Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) pointed to three key factors - attracting the best students, the best teachers, and ensuring adequate financial resources - but also highlighted the importance of a clear mission, adequate autonomy, an attractive location and branding.
For Nikolaus van der Pas, Director-General of the European Commission's Education and Culture DG, the path to excellence is a much simpler one - mobility and quality assurance are the principal requirements.
Professor Aebischer was speaking from experience. He became President of the EPFL in 2000, and has played a part in implementing changes that have seen the institute become one of the most successful universities in Switzerland and Europe. The Institute's 12 original 'departments' were replaced by five 'schools', offering interdisciplinary programmes. The institute has also formed a network with other institutions, including the University of Lausanne, which now offers humanities courses to EPFL students, while the EPFL, in turn, provides maths and physics for students from the University of Lausanne.
Convinced that all the best universities have more graduate than undergraduate students, the EPFL has doubled its number of graduate students over the last 12 years, and has also been successful in attracting both excellent students and teaching staff. More than 50 per cent of postgraduate students are non-Swiss, while some 30 per cent of teachers originate from outside Switzerland.
The institute operates 'aggressive hiring policies', according to Professor Aebischer. 'You cannot just place adverts in Nature, you need to go out and chase the best brains,' he said. 'There are lots of people in the US who would like to come back to Europe.' A recent success story is the addition of Thomas and Monika Henzinger to the staff list. Thomas Henzinger, was a full professor at Berkeley University, and is a pioneer in program verification, while his wife was director of research at Google, and was recognised in 2001 as one of the 'Top 25 Women on the Web'. Both found EPFL attractive enough to leave the Silicon Valley in the US. 'If you attract [the best], they will attract others, and the students will follow,' said Professor Aebischer.
Nikolaus van der Pas congratulated Professor Aebischer on the success of the EPFL, but said that he had missed something in his presentation - the European dimension. Thousands of universities across Europe are all facing the challenges brought about by globalisation and new societal expectations, said Mr van der Pas.
The question of how much return there is on the money being invested in education also needs to be examined in a European context, claimed Mr van der Pas, as it cannot be answered at a national or local level.
Tackling mobility and quality assurance are the priorities, according to the Director-General. But quality assurance is difficult to guarantee at a European level when there is a lack of uniformity across the continent. A Commission proposal on the harmonisation of qualifications, for example, is unthinkable, explained Mr van der Pas: 'Such a proposition, especially from the Commission, would cause outcry. Who do they think they are? people would ask,' he said.
Progress is therefore likely to be slow, but steady, he said: The straight line from the problem to the solution is definitely not the shortest one. We have to make a number of detours to get to where we want.'
But the Commission's strategy should ultimately result in both guaranteed quality and increased mobility. The most important aspect of this strategy is building up mutual trust between universities. This will open the door to increased cooperation between the institutions, and as a result, better opportunities for mobility.
The Erasmus Mundus programme is one such initiative aimed at reinforcing mutual trust. Students must study at two European universities in order to receive a European Masters degree, but only universities cooperating with others can participate, and therefore receive EU funding. 'We hope to create islands of cooperation that will grow and grow in time,' explained Mr van der Pas.
Mr van der Pas also referred to branding, highlighted by Professor Aebischer as one of the key ingredients to creating a world-class university. A lot of initiatives are underway bilaterally to attract third country students to Europe's universities, but how attractive is 'Europe'? he asked. A period at a US university stands out on a CV, but time spent at a university in Belgium, he suggested as an example, does not have such an impact, even if the university is extremely specialised in the relevant field.
Europe also needs to surmount its suspicion of elitism, suggested the Director-General. 'Unless we get an elite university we will not be on the map,' he said.
One area where both speakers were clearly united in their beliefs was the importance of commercialisations. 'If we can convince politicians to invest more in developing new technology, we have to show we can create wealth from it,' said Professor Aebischer.
Mr van der Pas seconded this statement: 'You can spend as much money as you like on research, but if you are unable to commercialise the results because of legal or institutional barriers, this is a roadblock to development,' he concluded.
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