• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Reviving Europe’s Universities

22 January, 2008 - 00:00

COPENHAGEN — Writing at home sometime ago, with Wimbledon on TV in the background, it occurred to me that just as Britain hosts the world’s top tennis tournament but never wins it, so we Europeans are in a similar situation with education.

The world’s first university was Plato’s Academy in Athens, venerable old universities are scattered across Europe from Coimbra to Cambridge to Copenhagen, and the modern university, uniting research and education, was pioneered by Wilhelm von Humboldt in Berlin. Yet today, universities in the United States easily outperform their European counterparts.

Less than 2% of the European Union’s GDP is devoted to research, compared to 2.5% in the US and 3% in Japan. Spending per student on tertiary education is just over $9,000 in France, slightly under $11,000 in Germany, and almost $12,000 in the UK. Some EU countries, such as Denmark, do better, but still lag far behind the US, which spends more than $25,000.

Measuring the quality of output is difficult, although The Times Higher Education Supplement attempts to do so every year. Only three European universities - Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College in London - made it into the top ten in the most recent list; all the rest were American. Only ten universities from the entire EU have ever made it into the top 50. Germany’s top university, Heidelberg, ranks 58th.

As a result, roughly 400,000 European scholars currently reside in the US, and almost 60% of European citizens who received doctorates in US from 1998 to 2001 chose to remain there. There are twice as many Europeans studying in the US as there are Americans studying in Europe.

Europe’s “education gap” doesn’t stop at the Atlantic. China and India represent more than mushrooming factories and low-cost semi-skilled labor. Just as in Europe, the industrial revolution in “Chindia” is also creating an ambitious new middle class that is willing and able to send its children to university. But in today’s world, students and researchers choose a university much as consumers shop in the international marketplace.

Europe has made some modest efforts to regain university competitiveness. In March 2000, EU leaders meeting in Lisbon set the goal of making Europe the world’s most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010, and two years later they agreed that investment in R&D must reach 3% of GDP by 2010.

Such ambitious goals, however unrealistic, can have a disciplining effect, leading some EU countries to increase their spending, while the EU itself has launched a number of promising schemes. The seventh Framework Program, worth some И50 billion - a 40% increase over the sixth program - is perhaps the most prominent funding source tool through which the EU supports R&D activities.

But the EU and European governments must do more. Overall spending is still dwarfed by US federal research and development spending, which will total $137 billion in the 2007 fiscal year. European leaders must therefore substantially increase research funding when the EU budget is next due for revision in 2008 and 2009. Although the core financial burden will be on the member states, the EU level can make an important contribution.

Moreover, although the European Commission clearly has a duty to prevent mismanagement and fraud, every application for EU funding requires extremely onerous procedures. Eliminating bureaucratic red tape, as the Commission has now pledged to do, would be a substantial boon to European researchers.

Finally, Europe must place more emphasis on basic research. Of course, our scientists should respond to current problems in society. But if basic research is neglected, attempts to produce quick innovations through applied research will be futile. Basic research is the primary organism in the food chain of scientific endeavor. The European Research Council, which is to award research grants on the basis of peer-reviewed excellence, will therefore be an important step forward, and the EU should further increase its funding.

But just throwing money at universities isn’t enough. As the former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert, together with Nick Butler, commented in a report published by London’s Centre for European Reform entitled The future of European universities: Renaissance or decay? , EU governments are stuck in a vicious circle: “The universities will get no more money unless they reform, and they cannot reform without more money”.

The Danish government has sought to break free from this vicious circle by introducing reforms before pledging to increase budgets. In 2003, Denmark’s universities were turned into self-governing institutions run by governing boards dominated by external representatives. Last year, the government merged 12 universities into eight in order to achieve substantial economies of scale, and the Danish parliament approved a nearly 50% increase in government spending on research by 2010.

The Danish case highlights the pivotal role of governance reform if Europe is ever to meet its Lisbon goals. The University of Copenhagen’s mergers with the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University and the Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences have made it the largest university in Scandinavia. We now aspire to becoming the most significant health and life science research center in Europe, owing to a remarkable cluster of knowledge based 5,000 researchers, an excellent medical school, 11 university hospitals, and a thriving biotech business environment that already includes market leaders in diabetes and neuroscience.

Until we embarked on governance reform, this would probably have been impossible. Our experience so far has taught us that university managers should not accommodate rising student populations by inflating their core business. However fierce the global competition, they should concentrate on safeguarding quality and achieving excellence in research and education.

Lykke Friis is Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Copenhagen.

© Project Syndicate

By Lykke FRIIS