Universities must learn from multinational companies and create new types of networks both inside and outside the academic world, according to Hans van Ginkel, vice president of the Conference of Rectors of European universities.
Professor van Ginkel, rector of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, giving the keynote address yesterday at the CRE's bi-annual conference in Olomouc in the Czech Republic, said higher education had not yet exploited the richness of cooperation as experienced by the private sector.
Companies made strategic choices, concentrating on their core business, and reducing business uncertainties by "outsourcing" parts of the production process to specialist providers and consultants, who in turn took over some of the responsibilities and risks.
Universities wanted to excel internationally, but in the face of reduced government funding and increasing demands for higher education, no single institution was powerful enough on its own, or had enough resources, to excel in every field of teaching and research, Professor van Ginkel said.
They must therefore focus on their strengths, and work together with other institutions, industry and government agencies, in order to keep offering a broad variety of good courses and research.
He predicted that there was no future for institutions who were not part of European university networks forging links not only among themselves but with the community at large, because they would have lost their proper place in society.
As the scale of investment in human talent and equipment increased, university managers had to make difficult choices about which objectives to pursue or abandon. These choices might be easier when they knew their partners would provide services and skills they could no longer provide themselves.
And they should not waste any energy on potential partners who did not share or at least respect the institution's mission. Networking based on this principle should result in stronger ties with families of institutions who shared the same basic values and objectives.
But Professor van Ginkel warned that despite the need to become more independent of state funding, financial autonomy meant never relying on just one extra source of income.