Bernd Huber: Competitive edge

January 1, 1990

4 October 2012

Rivalry is vital for the development of world-class institutions, and substantial funding for research - and not just applied research - is a prerequisite for development, explains Bernd Huber

European universities are among the oldest in the world and, to some extent, one can say that the idea of the university was born in Europe. However, although it has many old, distinguished universities with long, prestigious traditions, it is obvious that the Continent has fallen back in the competitive field of global higher education.

There are several reasons for the relative decline of Europe's higher education system vis-a-vis the rest of the world. One important factor is that (with the notable exception of the UK) most European countries traditionally have adopted a highly egalitarian approach to higher education. This has allowed for little differentiation and competition between universities.

Another aspect is that higher education policies have often lacked focus, with the result that more than 1,000 universities in Europe define themselves as research-intensive universities, taking, for example, Harvard and Stanford universities as role models. This implies a low degree of differentiation. One consequence is that Europe has developed many good universities but few world-class institutions. Given the constraints on financial resources, however, it is clear that Europe cannot maintain such a large number of research-oriented universities at world-class level.

Together with the lack of competition and differentiation among universities, this is often seen as one of the key elements contributing to the Continent's economic problems.

In recent years, several initiatives have been launched to strengthen the role of competition in European higher education. At the European level, the European Research Council has been established to fund frontier research in Europe on a competitive basis.

The effects of competition can be seen in the pattern of ERC funding: for example, nearly 20 per cent of all grants accrue to just 21 universities. This indicates that the ERC is a key driver in the process for more differentiation in the European higher education landscape. It is interesting to note that these 21 universities are the members of the League of European Research Universities, which was established in 2002 and advocates the promotion of competitive world-class research at European universities.

At the national level, several European countries have introduced programmes to strengthen competition and improve the quality of their university systems. Perhaps the most prominent example is the Excellence Initiative in Germany, which has allocated almost EUR5 billion (£4 billion) in research funds to German universities in two rounds of competition since 2006. Almost 10 per cent has been awarded to Ludwig- Maximilians-Universitat (LMU), which thus ranks as the leading German university.

As an institution with a strong focus on basic research, LMU has greatly benefited from this boost in funding across the board. Furthermore, the Excellence Initiative has allowed the university to hire top academics from all over the world, reform appointment procedures and significantly strengthen its overall competitive position.

Finally, it has gained significantly in terms of international visibility and reputation.

Programmes such as the Excellence Initiative suggest that the performance of European universities is poised to improve significantly, leaving them in a position to challenge their international competitors.

However, there are serious risks that endanger the progress made so far.

Most importantly, the eurozone crisis may have a profoundly negative impact on European economies and thus on funding for their higher education systems.

But even if the crisis can be overcome without serious economic friction, there are other difficult issues facing the sector.

Policies that favour applied over basic or blue-sky research - which is the main domain of research-oriented universities - are one problem. This preference for applied research not only seriously underestimates the role of basic research as a long-term generator of innovation, it also favours certain subjects while neglecting others.

While fields such as engineering, which promise immediately applicable results, may benefit, other subjects, such as theoretical physics, will receive insufficient funding under the policy.

In particular, the arts and humanities are greatly disadvantaged by such a purely utilitarian approach.

This highlights another important issue. A well-functioning and successful higher education system requires some consensus in society about the role of the university. A short-term-oriented, purely utilitarian understanding of that role would undermine the long-term basis for innovation and erode the role of the academy as a source of societal debate and progress.

Another risk under this approach is that lack of funding may drive up tuition fees to such levels that higher education becomes the privilege of a happy few.

However, if society views the higher education system as a key driver of innovation and societal change, ample opportunities arise for bold progress and productive developments. If the European policy debate succeeds in agreeing on this kind of vision, our higher education systems have a bright future.

Bernd Huber is president of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen and chairman of the League of European Research Universities

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