The biggest contribution Universities make to the economy is through their students. However ground-breaking our research may be, it will lack societal impact if we do not have great minds who can apply these ideas to the benefit of society. Indeed, our research itself, and the ability to generate innovation through it, is stymied without excellent students ready to become tomorrow’s scientists.
When The Guild was created in 2016, the fact that Universities make a transformative contribution to Europe’s innovative capacity through their students seemed of little interest in Brussels. In part, the reason for this was structural. The Directorate General responsible for innovation (DG RTD) had no remit for Higher Education. The Directorate-General for Education (DG EAC) had a remit for the European Institute of Technology, but lacked other instruments (and resources) to foster innovation through education.
Against this background, we should welcome the European Higher Education and Innovation Summit on 23 June. It is extremely important that the Commissioner responsible for Research, Innovation and Education, Mariya Gabriel, is highlighting the critical link between education and innovation. So what should universities look out for at this summit, and in the ensuing debate?
The Summit focuses on topics such as life-long learning, fostering innovative and entrepreneurial mind-sets, and the contribution of universities to innovation eco-systems. These are important topics. Our societies and economies are transforming with growing acceleration, and we need to embrace the need to upskill and reskill students over the course of a lifetime. How we do this, and how this is funded, are critical issues.
But we must also look for – and insist on – the singular importance of universities to educate critical thinkers. Our students are faced not only with rapid transformations in the economy; these are inseparable from changes in science, in society, in culture, and in politics and international relations. Europe would be badly served if we simply educated students who understand stock markets, business plans and IP rights, but who cannot compute the wider, cross-cutting implications of change.
In the foreseeable future, many occupations will decline or vanish, others will appear. But we will still need doctors, teachers, journalists, and other professions dedicated to the public good. They, too, will need to be able to embrace change over the course of a life-time. But we need to encourage them, first and foremost, in the analytical, discursive and intercultural skills they need. Our students need to be critical thinkers and citizens first and foremost, understanding the importance of service, of the common good, and what it means to disagree while attending to the facts.
We should also be mindful to foster innovation in all walks of life. We need innovators not just for start-ups, but in theatre, performance, and the arts, to ensure that we develop new ways to ensure societal reflection and communication. Entrepreneurship courses are hardly the answer to this need.
Finally, Europe’s economy relies on graduates with cutting-edge skills. To thrive, prosper and grow, BioNTech, AstraZeneca and others need graduates with state-of-the-art knowledge in the life sciences. Rolls Royce, Mercedes and Airbus need the world’s best engineers, while SAP and others need outstanding graduates in computer sciences. So any discussion about how to strengthen the innovation capacities of universities must always also be a discussion about how we can enable universities to do cutting-edge research, and how we can better link world-leading research with outstanding education. We cannot just teach how to innovate. We also need to teach, first and foremost, the academic skills that will enable our graduates to make their mark.
The European Higher Education and Innovation Summit is an important moment in this debate. It will succeed if we do not narrow down the debate to how we can foster more start-up companies. Instead, we need to debate how we can strengthen the full contribution universities can make to the economy, to the arts, and to society. And for this, we need to support, first and foremost, our students as independent, critical thinkers who are masters of their subject, and who can think outside the box.