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The role of universities in building a Europe of knowledge


Today European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin welcomed more than 1000 participants from Europe and beyond to a conference on “The Europe of Knowledge 2020: A vision for university-based research and innovation”, in Liège (Belgium). Participants include Ministers, National and European Parliament Members, heads of universities, top-level scientists and industry leaders. The aim of the event, that will run to April 28, is to define the role of universities and prepare a European vision for university-based research and innovation for the next 15-20 years. The Commission will also present a study on the “Financing of University-based Research and Innovation”. As competitiveness and mobility top the political agenda, there is a clear need to support and foster the contribution of universities in helping Europe 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 will not only help delegates to fully understand the European dimension of the challenges faced by universities in research, but it will also stimulate further debate on the Commission’s Communication on “The role of universities in the Europe of Knowledge” .

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“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 Commissioner 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 will help define a comprehensive strategy on how to make the most of European universities’ potential over the next 20 years.”

Strong, well funded research-oriented universities

The conference will address all the main issues facing European universities today and those hampering their contribution to EU growth, job creation and quality of life. One of the shortcomings of the present system is the lack of strong well-funded research-oriented 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-oriented universities. Europe requires new schemes to support fundamental research on a competitive basis.

Research closely linked to teaching

Strong links between research and teaching are needed, particularly regarding the training of post-graduate 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/research system. All players are to be encouraged to co-operate so as to ensure that Europe has an adequate supply of labour to sustain its needs across all R&D sectors.

Innovation is to be promoted, while also striking a balance with the more traditional activities such as teaching and basic research. The creation of new knowledge and the training of high-level scientists must remain a key priority. The conference will foster dialogue between industry and universities to help strike that balance.

Keep learning

The conference will also address the increasing demand for people with university, or higher, degrees and the need for them to keep improving their professional profiles throughout their careers. This demands life-long 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.

Flexibility Vs job security for researchers?

Across Europe, higher education systems are becoming more and more decentralised. This has an impact on the employment and working conditions of academics. Participants will examine how higher education institutions can 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.

Common rules for universities across Europe

University systems are very different across Europe and this lack of consistency and co-ordination can sometimes operate to the disadvantage of some. Although Member States are in charge of higher education/research policy, there is a need for a set of common rules that can be applied to the local context. The conference will study the issue of governance for public authorities and universities alike, with a view to establishing a level playing field across Europe in higher education and research based on shared guidelines and a common approach at the European level.

The need for more facts and figures

In order to have a better picture of the state of play in the financing of university-based research, the European Commission has commissioned a new study by the European University Association. The preliminary results will be released and discussed during the conference. Extracts of the executive summary include:
  • Considerable institutional differences in methods of data collection, management and budget allocation, which pose major challenges in comparing the research environments of universities across Europe.

  • While national R&D expenditure has not greatly increased between 1995 and 2001, total institutional expenditure on R&D in this period has significantly increased.

  • Even if at the moment innovation is not always a high-priority issue in major universities, many institutions perceive a danger in over-reliance on external funds for short-term applied research projects that may be detrimental to 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 academic staff development initiatives are at the forefront of institutional strategy.

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

Fabio Fabbi | European Commission
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