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Brussels, 10 May 2006

Frequently Asked Questions : why European higher education systems must be modernised ?

Following the European Council’s invitation at Hampton Court, the Commission is today publishing a Communication to drive forward the modernisation of Europe’s universities (see IP/06/592), to increase their contribution to Europe’s drive for more growth and more jobs. European universities have enormous potential, much of which unfortunately goes untapped because of various rigidities and hindrances. Freeing up the substantial reservoir of knowledge, talent and energy requires immediate, in-depth and coordinated change: from the way in which systems are regulated and managed, to the ways in which universities are governed. The Communication presented today covers all activities of Europe’s universities, from their delivery of education, their research activities, through to their potential as drivers of innovation.

The potential of European universities is enormous: more than 4000 institutions, 17 million students and 435.000 researchers. But that potential is not being used to its best advantage, particularly when considering the EU’s agenda to increase growth and jobs.

1 - Why is the Commission making these proposals?

Universities have an important role to play in the EU’s drive to become a global knowledge economy, a fact which was recognised at the informal European Council of Hampton Court in October 2005, which called for stronger action at European level to drive forward the agenda for change in universities. The Commission is today responding to this invitation from the European leaders. The Commission is inviting the European Council to give a clear message about the EU’s determination to achieve the necessary restructuring and modernisation of the higher education sector, so that all its essential functions, those more connected to societal or personal development as well as those more closely connected to the economy, can be fulfilled.

2 - How does the Communication fit in with other announcements?

The Communication should be taken as part of a longer-term process of modernising Europe’s universities that policy makers across Europe have agreed is much needed, since unleashing the full potential of our universities is a key part of the Lisbon Strategy to create jobs and growth in Europe. The Commission is helping to coordinate work done by the Member States and others on this issue, and last year published a Communication dealing specifically with higher education policy[1]. This communication brings together the strands of education, research and innovation, all of which are fundamental to the work of universities. Other recent documents also deal with the role of universities in creating a knowledge economy: the report of the Aho Group “Creating an Innovative Europe”[2] and the proposal for a European Institute of Technology (EIT)[3]. Today’s Communication should be seen together with these documents.

3 - What’s the problem with Europe’s universities?

The performance of developed economies is closely related to their ability to create, disseminate and apply knowledge. These three poles - education, research, innovation - are known as the ‘knowledge triangle’. Unfortunately, Europe has fallen behind in all three parts of the knowledge triangle, and needs to improve its performance in each of them. The problems with Europe’s universities centre on the following:

  • European higher education is fragmented into (what are often) small national systems and sub-systems, without effective links and bridges between them;
  • National regulations are too often over-detailed, and this diminishes universities’ responsiveness to changing learning and research needs emerging from markets and society;
  • Europe’s universities have a tendency to uniformity within each system/subsystem which has led to a good average level, but has limited access and failed to enable enough world-class research;
  • Universities under-use the knowledge they produce because they and business still inhabit largely separate worlds;
  • Many universities are insufficiently prepared for the coming competition for students, researchers and resources in an increasingly globalising world.
  • Most importantly, funding for universities is far too low compared to our major competitors, both in education and in research, due mainly to much smaller contributions from private sources.
  • Furthermore, access rates to higher education are still lower in Europe than in many other leading world regions, especially for adult learners (see tables 1 and 2 below).
  • Table 1: Gross enrolment rates (all students irrespective of age as a % of student-age population) in tertiary education
Year, Unit
EU 25
All students as % of population in age group 20-24
Year 2003

Source: DG EAC based on UNESCO data

  • Table 2: Enrolment rates in higher education for adults
Year, Unit
EU 25
% of population 30-39 in higher education, Year 2004
30-34: 4.1%
35-39: 1.8%
30-34 : 7.0%
35-39: 4.9%


4 - What does the Commission propose to do about the problem?

  • Break down the barriers around universities in Europe

There should be a major effort to achieve the core Bologna reforms by 2010 in all EU countries. These are:

  • universality of the BA/MA/PhD structure;
  • flexible, modernised curricula at all levels; and
  • trustworthy quality assurance systems.

This requires targeted incentives from responsible authorities in the national context to ensure proper take-up of the reforms – rather than mere superficial compliance with the standards as is sometimes the case. Discipline associations should be encouraged to coordinate curricular renovation within specific disciplines or professional fields at European level.

Mobility levels need to increase substantially. Measures should be taken to increase the proportion of graduates and researchers spending a semester abroad or in industry. Making national grants and loans applicable wherever one studies or does research in the EU would be an important factor in this. Proposals to make it easier to move pension rights from one country to another would also contribute

No applicant should have to wait longer than 4 months for a decision about recognition of their academic qualification, bringing this more in line with existing practice for professional qualifications.

  • Create real autonomy and accountability for universities

Member States should draw up a framework of rules and policy objectives for the higher education sector as a whole. Such rules would cover, for example, issues such as performance assessment, cost transparency, recruitment procedures and staff promotion mechanisms and tenure systems.

Within this context universities should have the freedom and the responsibility to set their own missions, priorities and programmes in research, education and innovation; to decide on their own organisation and on the bodies necessary for their internal management and the representation of society’s interests; to manage their own physical, financial and intellectual assets for research and education, their budgets (including fundraising) and their partnerships with academia and industry; to recruit and set the compensation rules for their permanent and temporary staff and to target their collective efforts towards institutional priorities in research, teaching and services. In doing so, universities need to accept that they are fully accountable to society at large for their results, including the cost-efficiency with which these are achieved.

Member States should build up and reward management and leadership capacities within universities. The Commission suggests this could be done by establishing national bodies dedicated to university management and leadership training and using EU support to create strong linkages of these at European level.

Example: New Danish Principles for University Governance
The Danish Univeristy law defines a governing board that is self-renewing to safeguard the autonomy of universities. The board appoints the rector, and the rector appoints the deans. The collegiate approach is guaranteed by the Academic Council elected by the faculty. The division of power and influence between rector, governing board and academic council is defined by law.

[Graphic in PDF & Word format]

  • Provide incentives for structured partnerships with the business community

Member States should support universities to develop incentive mechanisms to improve the use of knowledge and the wider sharing of research results, including with respect to intellectual property rights, patents and licensing and the creation of innovative spin-offs.

Universities should build up lasting partnership with the business community, in particular by working with local and regional partners (research laboratories, science parks, start-ups and SMEs), for example by creating “clusters for knowledge creation and transfer”.

Universities should also be encouraged to establish university-industry research partnership offices at the interface between the two sectors.

Example: Rolls Royce
Rolls Royce’s position as a leading manufacturer of aero-engines and turbines depends on a wide range of research needs. Rolls Royce has approached their research requirements by creating scientific and technical partnerships with “Centres of Excellence” established in a few leading university groups. Skilled personnel are supported in the selected institutions, who gain an understanding of the business environment. The partnership is governed by 5-year rolling contracts, giving the university the stability to recruit high quality staff. IPR agreements are drawn up that meet the needs of company and university and the close relationship leads to effective technology transfer.

  • Provide the right skills and competencies for the labour market

The current pressure for uniformity – or even conformity – in much national regulation for universities does not enable sufficiently differentiated programmes geared towards the needs of different types of learners and regional/local actors. Member States should value and reward diverse university profiles, including through differentiated regulatory and funding systems. Programmes should be designed to enhance the employability of graduates. Research candidates should have the opportunity to acquire skills in IPR management, communication, networking, entrepreneurship and team-work in addition to research techniques.

While university education and research pursue much broader ethical, cultural and social goals than “employability” alone, labour market access should be used as one indicator, among many, of the quality of university performance.

Universities will soon be faced with the consequences of an ageing population, with a dwindling potential pool of graduates. By providing more courses open to students at later stages of life, they will be better prepared to meet this challenge.

Reduce the funding gap and make funding work harder in education and research

There’s a significant funding gap in Europe compared to its major competitors. In simple terms, to close the funding gap with the USA, Europe would need to spend – on average - an additional EUR 10,000 per higher education student per year. However, the bulk of this would need to come from non-public sources, i.e. from households, industry and donations.

To tackle this gap, Member States should adopt the target that within a decade total funding for a modernised higher education sector should not be less than 2% of GDP. Universities will not be able to make their full contribution to growth and to the Lisbon strategy with less.

University financing should be comprehensible and transparent. It should be based on what universities do and not what they are. Universities should take greater responsibility for their own long-term financial sustainability, through working with industry, foundations and other private sources.

Member States should critically examine their current model of student finance and support for efficiency and equity.

  • Enhance interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity

Teaching and research agendas should reflect new developments in existing fields and emerging areas of inquiry. This will require an approach that brings together various disciplines that have an impact on a specific research domain, for example renewable energy or nanotechnology. It would also imply closer links between related or complementary fields, such as humanities, social sciences or business studies. This necessarily implies a more open approach to staff management, evaluation and funding criteria, teaching, curricula and research.

  • Activate knowledge through interaction with society

As Europe moves towards becoming a knowledge society, society in general needs to be a part of the process. Therefore universities should consider how they interact with the society within which they operate, whether locally, regionally or nationally. This can be done through greater emphasis on lifelong learning, but also by communication through open door days, placements, forums for dialogue and community service.

  • Acknowledge and reward excellence at the highest level

All Member States should review their provision at postgraduate levels (master and doctorate, including postdoctoral opportunities) and the disciplines concerned, in the light of their strategic objectives for higher education, research and innovation in the national and European context. In this way, each university would be encouraged to identify a limited number of fields where it can achieve excellence.

Financial support should be made available at European level to develop excellence at graduate/doctoral schools and networks meeting key criteria such as:

  • critical mass,
  • trans- and inter-disciplinarity,
  • a strong European dimension,
  • backing from regional/national authorities and from industry,
  • identified and recognised areas of excellence, and
  • provision of post-doctoral opportunities.

Competition for excellence should be strengthened through the European Research Council: the European Research Council (ERC) will promote a European champions’ league in “frontier research” by opening up competition among Europe’s best and brightest.
Example: University of Groningen Science Shops
The University of Groningen has created 9 Science Shops in 5 faculties, which are there to provide answers from citizens’ groups, NGOs etc on questions related to the environment, consumers, health, social issues etc. Citizens groups can approach the Science Shops to have independent scientific input on a local issue, for example levels of pollution, or the effect on health of a local factory. This scientific advice can help resolve contentious issues within the local society.
The European Commission supports an international network of such Science Shops so they can share their experience:

  • Make the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area more visible and attractive in the world

There should be serious effort to market European universities abroad. The Commission has begun this process, through the highly successful Erasmus Mundus and Marie-Curie programmes. Both are oversubscribed and should be expanded.

A single Europe-wide internet portal already exists for researchers. A similar one should enable students to search across all EU countries to find and compare courses per specialisation, level and language.

5 - Is this set of proposals not simply an attempt to import the American model, or force the liberalisation of universities?

No. The Communication is not about importing a model from another country wholesale. Nor is it about liberalisation for the sake of it. Indeed, the Commission has been very careful to make sure that the proposals are adapted to the particular circumstances in Europe. The measures that are being proposed by the Commission will allow universities to make their full contribution to Europe’s social and economic goals, and come in support of, not in contradiction to the other roles of universities in a culturally and linguistically diverse Europe.

More information :

[1] Mobilising the brainpower of Europe: enabling higher education to make its full contribution to the Lisbon Strategy, COM (2005)152 final of 20 April 2005. The main messages in this Communication were backed by a Council Resolution of 15 November with the same title (OJ 2005/C 292/01 of 24 November 2005).

[2] Report of the Independent Expert Group on R&D and Innovation appointed following the Hampton Court Summit and chaired by Mr Esko Aho, European Commission, January 2006

[3] Launching a knowledge flagship: the European Institute of Technology, COM(2006)...

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