We need a European-level excellence initiative

A cross-continental push to improve Europe’s best universities will make them more globally competitive, says Jan Palmowski

September 30, 2019
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The European Union’s new commissioner-elect for youth and innovation, Mariya Gabriel, will have universities firmly in her sights when she takes up the post on 1 November.

Assuming that Gabriel succeeds in her nomination hearings in the European Parliament this week – and that the parliament confirms the entire commission four weeks later – these are the institutions that will span her portfolio of research, education and innovation. And she will need them to fulfil her mission, set by the commission’s president-elect, Ursula von der Leyen, to find European solutions to “the most pressing global issues”.

But how strong will the EU’s universities be post-Brexit? Only four of the top 50 institutions in Times Higher Education’s latest World University Rankings are in the EU-27, and none are in the top 30. And only nine of the top 25 institutional winners of European Research Council grants are in the EU-27. The best of these, LMU Munich, won an impressive 91 awards up to 2018, but this is significantly behind the University of Cambridge (233) and other leading UK and Swiss institutions.

So how can Gabriel help the global competitiveness of EU-27 universities? The first point is obvious. She must prevent any divide opening up between EU institutions and those of the UK and Switzerland. Complex domestic debates in both countries about their relationship with the EU are casting doubt on their timely association with Horizon Europe, but any delay would clearly hurt both sides. It is in the EU’s interest to be accommodating to third-country participants, including coming to pragmatic solutions for their financial contributions.

There is also a real opportunity for Gabriel to formulate a new vision for the European Research Area. Since 2000, its goals have included the free movement of research and researchers, gender mainstreaming, optimal transnational competition and cooperation, and effective national research systems. Much progress has been made, but no goal has been fully achieved. If Gabriel can excite governments about future areas of new knowledge where Europe must and will excel, she can also persuade them into more ambitious national action.

One of the most remarkable recent developments in the EU has been how much Emmanuel Macron’s vision of European universities – backed by a comparatively small budget – has inspired universities and national governments alike. These cross-continental consortia of between four and six institutions will act as incubators for new ideas about educational collaboration and about bringing research, innovation and education together. Once these bottom-up ideas have matured, the commissioner will need to let them influence policy – and encourage member states to do the same.

But we need much more to make European universities more competitive on a global scale. One instrument that could help is the excellence initiative. This is already in the legal basis for Horizon Europe, as a measure to enhance the excellence-based participation of the so-called widening countries (those that have low existing participation in EU research projects).

A good example is the Chinese Double-First initiative. Launched in 2017 with a jaw-dropping budget of $6 billion, what is striking about it is its capacity to leverage additional regional funding. Moreover, it focuses not just on Chinese universities that are already strong (although these are not forgotten) but aims to foster excellent universities throughout the country.

A European excellence initiative must have a substantive budget (although it won’t be on a Chinese scale). It should avoid some of the administrative burdens that we see in a number of national excellence competitions. It needs to avoid a duplication of existing instruments. And it must be careful to focus on added value, so that it enhances a complex and diverse geography of national university systems.

With this in mind, a European excellence initiative could have three connected goals. First, it could reinforce national excellence initiatives where they exist (Germany, Poland and France are three examples), and it could inspire other European governments to find their own ways to further strengthen excellent universities within their countries.

Second, it could encourage universities in widening countries to develop long-term strategies for strengthening research excellence and Horizon Europe participation. Universities would need to spell out realistic and concrete ways to do so in sustainable ways as a precondition for funding. And the willingness of regional and national governments to support these strategies in the long run should be an important evaluation criterion.

Third, an excellence initiative could establish knowledge hubs to bring together Europe’s best researchers in particular fields or geographical areas. These would bring together a critical mass of outstanding researchers, and develop new ways of promoting excellence and interdisciplinary working. Such hubs would not rival existing universities and research institutes, but would complement and strengthen them in their research capacities.

The European universities initiative demonstrates that European governments and even heads of state are keen to discuss universities as key to Europe’s future. Gabriel has an opportunity to develop a global vision for European universities that help drive knowledge production – for education, innovation and civil society.

China is not taking its universities for granted. Neither should the EU.

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The EU needs its own European-level excellence initiative

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