The flagging fortunes of Europe’s universities are a danger signal


Picture of Lykke Friis
Lykke Friis

The International Monetary Fund has noted that 90% of global economic growth this year will have been generated outside Europe. And a quick glance at university rankings attests to the fact that the world of science also mainly flourishes outside Europe.

Apart from  elite universities like Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge, Europe is nowhere near the top of the charts now dominated by America’s Ivy League colleges. The latest “Academic Ranking of World Universities” published in August showed ETH Zürich at number 20, Copenhagen ranked at 35 and in Paris the Pierre and Marie Curie just below at 36. They are, in short, the poor remnants of Europe’s past academic glory.

Saving the academic spirit from extinction is not only a European worry; it’s a matter that should concern the whole western world. That’s the alarm bell rung by a report from the UK’s Institute of Public Policy Research entitled “An Avalanche is Coming”. It claims that the snow drifts of global competition are threatening to bury traditional “red brick” universities. The chief threat, it warns, consists mainly of cheaper online alternatives to traditional classroom teaching, combined with new intellectual competition from Asia.

The chief threat, it warns, consists mainly of cheaper online alternatives to traditional classroom teaching, combined with new intellectual competition from Asia

What should we make, then, of this disaster scenario? The last few decades have certainly seen the Internet flip-flopping the realms of media, travel and banking, leaving newspapers, TV channels, hotels and your local bank clerk all struggling to stay on their feet. So by simple extrapolation, these newfangled IT forces are destined to hit universities.

The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has become a massive industry, with more than six million enrolled thus far. Thomas L. Friedman, the “guru” columnist of the New York Times, is thrilled by the “revolutionary potential” of MOOCs to disseminate universal education at low cost. Even faraway villages in Egypt could have access to the best teaching in the world, transmitted by way of high-speed satellite access to the Internet and subtitled in Arabic.

But other MOOC figures are less impressive. As few as 10% of the students complete their course, and according to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the preparation and execution of courses is very time-consuming for professors who on average spend over 100 hours assembling equipment and recording their videos, and who must also spend many hours a week responding to the vast number of online queries from students.

The main thrust of MOOC scepticism, meanwhile, falls within the category of intangible human attributes that cannot be quantified, which include the atmosphere of the auditorium, facial expressions, moods and gestures which cannot be transmitted by gadgets and sensed on screens, but are vital to real learning.

There is another avalanche threatening to engulf the old universities. It is coming from those corners of the globe that are free from crippling austerity policies and are endowed with enough financial muscle to ensure remarkable peaks in public expenditure. These are countries like China, South Korea, Singapore and India. In the last decade, China has increased investment in research by 500%.

By contrast, though, Yale university’s former president, Richard Levin, has argued that we should welcome the fact that more countries now have the ability to offer excellent university educations, not least because the intrinsic value of academic discourse will eventually make these emerging economies more hospitable to the virtues of liberal democracy.

Levin has also reminded us that it takes a long time to create a world-class university. Harvard and Yale took centuries to reach the level of Oxford and Cambridge, and the only Asian university that has managed to climb the tables into the top 25 is Tokyo, which was established in 1877. Furthermore, discussion of “brain drain” often implies that there are winners and loser in which some universities are deprived of their best people through interaction. But instead, what often occurs is “brain circulation” whereby students and researchers float back and forth between countries and continents to the advantage of all. Consider the University of Copenhagen, from which the young Chinese geneticist Wang Jun returned to China to become head of the world’s largest genetic sequencing facility, the Beijing Genomics Institute. This recently opened its European office in Copenhagen, and now young researchers from Beijing and Copenhagen travel back and forth on exchanges.

My response to both avalanche theories is to parrot Mark Twain and say that reports on the imminent death of the university are somewhat exaggerated. Twain’s definition of education as “the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty” is also sadly relevant. It also seems reasonable to suggest that insufficient funding in Europe constitutes a potentially destructive avalanche in its own right.

In Britain, subsidies are falling and tuition fees rising. In Finland, universities were deprived of 15% of their budget almost overnight. And universities in Denmark, which in the last 15 years have been protected by the consensus of various governments that knowledge is key to prosperity, have been notified by the new government that in a couple of years they will have to slice study programmes by 8% a year. Similar stories of declines in academic funding can be found in most other European countries.

At EU level, the Juncker Commission has also been backpedalling. Horizon 2020 is often depicted as the Promised Land of research funding, but soon after it took office, the new Commission proposed to transfer €2.7bn from Horizon 2020 to support the “Juncker plan” to spend money on infrastructure projects to kick-start an “Industrial Renaissance”. The Brussels commission’s move has been met by a wave of criticism from the German, French, Dutch and UK university Rectors’ conferences, from a group of Nobel laureates and from Britain’s prestigious Royal Society.

When the Juncker plan reached a fairly hostile European Parliament, a compromise was found with €500m less diverted away from the Horizon 2020 programme, thus saving the bulk of initiatives specially-tailored to support excellence in research. As it happens, the process of negotiation also revealed a Northwest-Southeast divide, as the criteria for quality and excellence favoured Cambridge, Amsterdam and Copenhagen as grant recipients rather than Sofia, Bratislava and Bucharest. The revised Horizon 2020 therefore  reinstated the initiative called “Spreading excellence”, which directs EU funds towards those European universities not blessed with so many bright stars of science.

Our universities are major vehicles of affluence in society, and therefore policymakers should not perceive them as a draining expense but as a necessary investment

All of this raises the big question of how we can revitalise Europe’s universities. Our universities are major vehicles of affluence in society, and therefore policymakers should not perceive them as a draining expense but as a necessary investment. One of the most striking pieces of statistical evidence in recent years was offered by the Kauffman Foundation when it suggested the bizarre idea that the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) should declare its independence from the United States; The point being that this new country, inhabited only by MIT alumni, would overnight become the world’s 17th richest nation. In short, the EU and its member states should think twice before they slash research and education.

When allocating research grants, policymakers should respect the long-term and unpredictable nature of science. In hard times especially, it is understandable that politicians are keen to direct funds to the areas they deem relevant for business and society. But who knows where the world is going? During the Great Depression of the 1930s, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned the smartest people in America to be part of a commission mandated to predict which technologies would in the future be the most significant. Not a single prediction turned out to be correct.

What we can say with some confidence is that world-class universities in America or the UK are just that because they always aim for excellence. And more often than not, great scientific endeavours are made by researchers who enjoy the freedom to conduct pure, basic research and do not need to get lost in lengthy funding applications.

Last but not least, we should promote teaching. At present, research achievements are imperative to a university’s advancement and recognition, whereas teaching doesn’t really count as a career driver. What we get are “retreat from the classroom” professors who perceive a student in the hallway as a “speed bump” who only will slow down the way to their next peer-reviewed article or research grant. This research-biased behaviour is detrimental to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s original idea of the university as an institution where research and education join forces to serve the commonweal. We should restore the legitimacy of teaching by rewarding those who do it well.

There are other methods, too, of enhancing education. We should not evade technology but apply it where it makes sense – and can be sensed. In this age when more people than ever are getting a university degree, we should do the simple maths and ask if it serves the overall quality of study programmes if the ratio of professors to students entails there being too few of the former. Some years ago, the University of California at Berkeley conducted a survey in which they asked their faculty researchers why they had chosen Berkeley as a workplace. The chief answer was not the sunny weather, the salary or the prestige, but the privilege of spending time with some very bright students. That’s the spirit we need to bring back in Europe.

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