The EU’s university strategy will help build international bridges
By Jan Palmowski
One key feature of Mariya Gabriel’s tenure as European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth has been how firmly universities have been in her sights.
Universities are the institutions that reach across the entirety of that vast portfolio. As such, she has been committed to supporting the European University alliances, and to initiating discussions about how universities need to develop in research and innovation.
But now the commission is going a step further, holding a series of sector-wide discussions and workshops on a European strategy for universities. And, at one level, this is surprising.
To support the strategy, the commission cannot rely on new funding instruments; these have been set until 2027. At best, existing funding instruments might be tweaked or optimised for any goals outlined in the strategy. Moreover, while research is a shared competence between the commission and member states, education has always been left to member states (and regions in some countries). Hence, the potential for the commission to directly effect change in universities is extremely limited.
Even so, a university strategy could be extremely important for the sector. For a start, a document beginning with the values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy would be highly meaningful. It would connect the Magna Charta Universitatum and other such documents emanating from the sector itself with the universal human rights that are the core political values of the European Union. It would underline the fact that academic freedom and institutional autonomy are essential to enable universities to foster human rights far beyond their own communities.
Moreover, an ambitious public spending target could provide important support for universities in national funding debates, particularly given the decline in public funding per student that most European countries have seen since 2008. To be sure, a significant proportion of the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, created in response to the pandemic, is committed to universities, but these welcome funds will only last until 2023. If Europe’s universities are to remain competitive globally, they need a permanent uplift.
Crucially, every country faces the question of how its leading universities can be strengthened while also enhancing the excellence of all universities. This is an issue for Europe, too. How can our universities attract the best researchers and empower them through state-of-the-art facilities and optimal working conditions? How can we support all universities in their desire to improve?
The pandemic has illustrated, hopefully once and for all, the importance of universities for society at a time of need. A university strategy could encourage European policymakers, universities, regional authorities and businesses to reflect anew on how universities can be empowered to support society on the basis of their core strengths of research and teaching in all disciplines.
Universities also all face the question of how to learn from the all-digital experience of the pandemic. How different should the “new” normal be from our pre-pandemic practices?
None of these questions are unique to Europe. But European countries are bound by shared values and connected through common research and education frameworks that facilitate high levels of interchange at institutional, cross-border regional and cross-national levels. That makes Europe a unique space in which to consider these strategic issues together.
Finally, a European strategy would increase the visibility of universities within the EU beyond the areas of research and education. There are many EU policy areas that have a profound impact on universities but in which universities do not have a strong voice; examples include proposed regulations on artificial intelligence, the protection and sharing of data (including in the important area of health), and the role of science and innovation in international partnerships.
A European university strategy will be particularly effective if it catalyses the sector to think beyond research and innovation, to articulate more strongly our role as a pan-continental bridge-builder. Universities have always been important pillars of our common heritage. We should embrace this opportunity to articulate how we can be a bedrock for Europe’s future.