The role of universities in building a Europe of knowledge

Education + Training

ISSN: 0040-0912

Article publication date: 1 August 2004



(2004), "The role of universities in building a Europe of knowledge", Education + Training, Vol. 46 No. 6/7.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The role of universities in building a Europe of knowledge

The role of universities in building a Europe of knowledge

More than 1,000 people from across Europe and beyond attended a conference to define the role of universities and prepare a European vision for university-based research and innovation for the next 15-20 years.

Participants at “The Europe of Knowledge 2020: a Vision for University-Based Research and Innovation”, in Liège, Belgium, included ministers, MPs, Euro-MPs, heads of universities, top-level scientists and industry leaders.

Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for Research, said: “As competitiveness and mobility top the political agenda, there is a clear need to support and foster the contribution of universities in helping Europe to meet the objectives set out by the March 2000 Lisbon European Council to turn Europe into the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.”

The conference not only helped delegates to understand the European dimension of the challenges faced by universities in research, but also stimulated debate on the Commission's communication on The Role of Universities in the Europe of Knowledge.

“Are European universities under-funded, under-equipped or just unprepared to meet Europe's needs and to match its aspirations to become the most competitive knowledge-based society in the world?” asked Philippe Busquin. “Although European universities are playing a central role in achieving Europe's ambitious target, we can no longer count on our haphazard funding of universities. Our future economic prosperity will largely depend on how our universities find resources to meet their future training and research needs.”

The conference examined the main problems facing European universities and the factors hampering their contribution to EU growth, job creation and quality of life. One shortcoming of the present system, delegates concluded, is the lack of strong well-funded research-orientated universities, not only in natural sciences but also in social sciences and the humanities. Multi- disciplinary research depends on a concentration of research. Big companies locate their corporate laboratories close to strong research-orientated universities. Europe requires new schemes to support fundamental research on a competitive basis.

Delegates also concluded that strong links between research and teaching are needed, particularly regarding the training of postgraduate students, but also for undergraduate studies. This requires close co-operation between the different institutions and a greater mobility of people across the higher-education and research systems.

A balance needs to be struck between the promotion of innovation and activities such as teaching and basic research. The creation of new knowledge and the training of high-level scientists must remain a key priority.

Delegates examined the increasing demand for people with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and the need for them to keep their knowledge up to date throughout their careers. This demands lifelong learning, training opportunities, increased research co-operation leading to the creation of knowledge-intensive networks and a better dissemination of knowledge into the local industrial community.

The conference was told that, across Europe, higher-education systems were becoming more and more decentralized. This had an impact on the employment and working conditions of academics. Participants examined how higher-education institutions could achieve a more diversified professional profile of researchers, while the current career path of researchers is often influenced by a system of scholarships, fellowships, short-term contracts and periods of tenure.

The European Commission had asked the European University Association to prepare a report on how university-based research is financed. The preliminary results, released and discussed during the conference, include the following.

  • Considerable institutional differences exist in methods of data collection, management and budget allocation, which pose major challenges in comparing the research environments of universities across Europe.

  • While national research and development expenditure did not greatly increase between 1995 and 2001, total institutional expenditure on R&D in the period did significantly increase.

  • Even if innovation is not always a high priority in major universities, many institutions perceive a danger in over-reliance on external funds for short-term applied research projects that may harm basic research in the long term.

  • There is a general expectation that funding sources will diversify in the future, thus slowly creating a cultural change in many universities.

  • Accession countries face particular challenges. However, in these countries staff- development initiatives are at the forefront of institutional strategy.

  • Universities are increasingly emphasizing the European level to develop their research activities, despite the relatively small amount of funding received from this source compared to national sources.

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