Brussels, 29 Sep 2004
If any members of the Deans' European Academic Network (DEAN) questioned the significance of the theme for their annual conference in Porto, Portugal, on and 28 September (research, innovation and knowledge transfer - a challenge for European universities), their doubts were soon dispelled.
According to Merle Jacob, a professor in science and innovation policy, the most important paradigm shift in recent years for universities is the fact that higher education institutions are now expected to contribute to economic growth - and preferably in direct terms.
Such an expectation appears entirely reasonable when one considers that approximately 20 per cent of the EU's total research expenditure goes to universities, and that one third of Europe's researchers work in higher education. The challenge, however, is how to bridge the huge gap between knowledge creation and knowledge transfer that is a feature of European universities.
In Professor Jacob's opinion, universities face three choices: they can lead, they can cope or they can simply drop out. 'A number of universities will not survive this process, but Europe has an oversupply at the moment, so this is not a real problem,' she told CORDIS News.
For those institutions that hope to survive or even flourish, the first step is to put in place a strategy based on a realistic assessment of their strengths and future potential. 'There is no place in such a strategy for leadership fantasies, particularly by tiny institutions,' Professor Jacob warned the conference. 'By all means aim for the sky, but make sure that it is the sky over your own university.'
Rainer Gerold, director of the science and society directorate at the Commission's Research DG, agreed with the need for universities to develop their own, clear research strategies. Speaking from Brussels via a video linkup, Mr Gerold told the deans that: 'The EU cannot provide a single identikit model for universities - your diversity is a great strength - but the issue will need a wide debate and we should promote best practices.'
Mr Gerold speculated that different types of university may emerge from such a process, with some able to focus on areas of research where they are globally competitive, others carrying out research not of global excellence, but in support of regional development, and others focusing most of their efforts towards teaching.
In terms of how universities should then go about increasing their innovative output, several concrete initiatives were proposed. For Dr Giles Capart, managing director of SOPARTEC, the technology transfer company affiliated to the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, the fastest and most efficient way for universities to achieve significant results in a reasonable time frame is to increase their collaboration with industry.
'This is a good system, and it will contribute new products and processes to existing business models,' said Dr Capart. 'Most importantly, it creates a lasting interaction between universities and industry.' In order to achieve long term economic rejuvenation, however, universities will have to complement their industry collaboration with active involvement in the creation of spin off companies. 'In many cases, the true potential of new technologies can only be unleashed through the development of alternative business models, rather than collaborating with existing enterprises,' Dr Capart argued.
Through such a complementary approach, society will draw benefits from university research through the creation of new jobs and industries, while universities will be better placed to attract new students, retain their best scientists, and generate new avenues of research. 'Such innovative activities should not be mistaken for a new source of funding for universities, however,' warned Dr Capart.
He concluded by reminding the deans exactly what was at stake: 'The research mission of universities is at stake - both in terms of retaining good scientists and justifying your research funding; the competitiveness of European industry is at stake; and the success of the European Research Area is at stake. [...] If we fail, in a matter of decades Europe will be reduced to showing its [landmarks] to Chinese tourists.'
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