University leaders push for Europe-wide excellence initiative

Additional support for institutions could be co-funded by national governments and the European Union, say rectors 

February 15, 2018
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Source: Reuters
Fast track: the scheme would aim to boost higher education systems, especially those that are not yet high-performing

European universities are pushing for the implementation of a new continent-wide “excellence initiative” that would see the European Union provide institution-level funding to help “increase the competitiveness” of higher education systems.

The “European Excellence Initiative” has been proposed by the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) and the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, and was discussed at a strategy day for European university leaders last month, which was organised by the HRK and attended by political and academic experts.

Several sectors across the world have used excellence initiatives to pump huge amounts of funding into a select number of institutions with the aim of turbocharging their research performance. Germany has invested €4.6 billion (£4 billion) in its excellence initiative since 2006, while several Asian countries, most notably China, have implemented similar programmes.  

According to the HRK, each EU member country would choose whether or not to participate in the initiative, which would be funded “primarily from national funds and money from the EU structural funds” and could be “topped up” with funds from the EU’s research and innovation framework programme to “make investments attractive for the member states and regions”.

The evaluation process, which would include peer review, could be “handled by independent European funding organisations” with funds from the framework programme, it added.

“This would allow states with a lower-performing innovation landscape, in particular, to objectively assess the strengths and weaknesses of their national research systems and thus achieve more focused development and become more internationally competitive,” it said.

The HRK added that “a great deal of support was expressed for the concept”, which would be the first initiative to provide institution-level funding for universities from the EU, at the strategy event.

Horst Hippler, president of the HRK, told Times Higher Education that the scheme would be aimed in particular at “those member states that want to catch up and increase the competitiveness of their higher education systems”.

He said that the proposed initiative was “separate” from plans to create a European Education Area focused on student mobility and French president Emmanuel Macron’s idea of establishing 20 cross-border European universities or university networks, but that it would “increase the chance of participation of all member states” in that process.

According to a German-Polish discussion paper, the initiative is an adaptation of an idea that was mooted in 2016 in a report from the European Commission’s then senior adviser for innovation, Robert Madelin, to its president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

But Professor Hippler said that Mr Madelin’s idea “was only interested in top universities of the Anglo-American type” whereas the latest proposal would “broaden the base for university excellence in the EU that should not be limited to a small group of member states”.

A key element of the idea is that participating countries would have to encourage applications from at least three different locations or regions to provide opportunities for institutions outside nations’ political centres.

The funding would go to “fields, disciplines and teams in the first place” rather than entire universities, Professor Hippler said.

Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said that the aim of the initiative was to “not only allocate funding from specific pots to excellent researchers or excellent universities” but also to “spread good practice” in terms of research assessment.

He said that he was supportive of the purpose of the scheme but that it was “too early to say whether it could be a reality in the next [framework] programme”.

But Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, a network of 23 leading institutions, questioned whether the new initiative was necessary.

“Already, the European framework programme for research and innovation is doing similar things. It’s funding excellent research, it’s making sure that extra people can be hired, that more research output can be reached, that more impact can be achieved,” he said.

He added that through EU structural funds, member states can already “sponsor research infrastructure, sponsor capacity [and] sponsor the [creation] of labs in order to make sure the whole research environment is beefed up”.

He said that individual nations should begin by investing more in their own education systems before asking the EU for help.

If each of the EU’s 28 member states invest “3 per cent of their GDP in research, then they can come and ask the EU [to] do more”, he said.

A spokesman at the European Commission said that it was not currently working on an excellence initiative for universities in EU member states.

“The European Commission’s primary focus is to set up a European Education Area by 2025, including a network of European universities,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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