Europe needs a ‘digital university act’ to safeguard sector’s independence

EU-wide law could curb the influence of big tech while enabling the free flow of knowledge throughout the bloc, says Karen Maex

August 30, 2021
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In recent years, urgent global challenges related to issues such as climate change, mass migration and the rapidly evolving digitisation of our societies have been steadily mounting. But as January 2020 dawned, another issue arose that would (temporarily) surpass them all. The crisis precipitated by the rise of the novel coronavirus and its unchecked spread around the world is without precedent in recent decades. Among other things, the havoc wrought by the pandemic demonstrated how a crisis that initially seemed focused in one area – public health – could so rapidly metastasise into inextricably intertwined social, legal, economic and environmental issues.

Research-intensive universities are among the world’s most important resources in the struggle to find solutions to these intractably complex global challenges. Although the worst of Covid-19 is, with any luck, behind us, numerous other challenges remain to take its place. While 2020 may have been the year when the world ground to a halt, in truth, the pace of change around the world has not slackened, and the role of universities remains at the leading edge of these changes. To ensure our readiness to tackle global challenges in the future, we need to focus on building resilient and sustainable societies, and broad-based, research-intensive universities are almost uniquely placed to play a key role in this.

The wide-ranging collaborations necessary to tackle the multifaceted issues our globalised society is producing will need to cross not only disciplinary boundaries but also national borders. Only in this way will we be able to stimulate the broadest and deepest range of fundamental research, to draw in the necessary private investment, and to disseminate knowledge and ensure that it is applied to society’s benefit. The future Europe needs to be one based on the principle of the free flow of data across national borders within the European Union.

Yet opening up our data, placing it in the hands of private companies, allowing them to search, index, repackage and resell the information, comes with risks attached. It raises fundamental questions about our independence.

The issue of how to deal with this exponential increase in digitisation is one of the most pressing facing universities today. The EU has announced that from now until 2030 will be its “Digital Decade”. The combination of digitisation with the shift to green policies across the board – the “twin transitions” – represents a moment of near unparalleled change and opportunity. The possibilities for collaboration and the ease of exchange of knowledge that digitisation brings are crystal clear. However, given that the overwhelming majority of the world’s key digital infrastructure is in the hands of the big tech companies, it also brings with it the danger of increasing dependence on private businesses, which frequently operate under a very different set of values from those that govern academia. How, operating as individual institutions, can we maintain control over our own educational data? How can we retain freedom of choice in digital platforms? How can we prevent unilateral dependence? The answer is that we can’t, and only with pan-European action can the great advantages that this moment offers be fully realised and the dangers successfully mitigated.

Immediate action is required to ensure that the alterations heralded by this digital revolution will work in our favour and the outcomes redound to our benefit. If digitisation in research and education is to be done responsibly, universities must retain ownership of their work when they collaborate with platform and data storage companies. Our independence must always be central. In addition, universities must ensure that they do not fall prey to “lock-in” situations, where large-scale dependence on a commercial partner supplying services or equipment becomes an inescapable trap. If we are to guarantee the independence of our research and education while utilising the digital systems of dominant private players, we need agreements and regulations. European universities should be collaborating with each other in the drawing-up of conditions governing the purchase of information services, the development of alternative publication platforms and an infrastructure that guarantees the independence of research data and metadata.

Now is the time to act on these intertwined issues. The European Commission is attempting to curb the influence of platforms in the service sector by means of a Digital Services Act, and similar legislation should be designed to protect the position of universities. We need an EU-wide “digital university act”, guaranteeing public storage of, and access to, research data; freely available research publications; control over digital learning and research tools; and access to platform data. Such a legislative framework would be an important step towards the final realisation of the ideal of the free flow of knowledge around the EU. And it would also go a long way towards safeguarding the precious independence of universities while allowing for accountability, transparency and open access for everyone involved in the wide-ranging education and research so vital to our interconnected modern world.

Karen Maex is rector magnificus of the University of Amsterdam and chair of the League of European Research Universities.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 will be published at 00:01 BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit (1-3 September), which will focus on the interrelationship between universities and the places in which they are located.


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