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European Commission


Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Opening speech

The 5th European University-Business Forum/Brussels

4 June 2013

It is a great pleasure to welcome you all to the Fifth University Business Forum.

I am particularly delighted to see so many of you here today. Your input and dedication is essential if we are to bring about a real change in mindset across Europe. I look forward to hearing your views and the exceptional level of expertise that this Forum has brought together.

[Role of Education in current economy]

Europe is being put to the test by great economic and social challenges. The last years have wiped out a decade of economic and social progress and exposed many weaknesses in our economies. We have to rethink how we invest our resources and how we can ensure the best result with limited means.

It is tempting, in a time of crisis, to turn inwards, focus on national matters, and try to maintain the status quo. But refusing to acknowledge the challenges ahead is not a good idea. And when it comes to higher education, it would be a grave mistake.

We are indeed at a crossroads in Europe.

Now is the time to push ahead and innovate, embrace reform and make the difficult decisions needed to revamp our economies and strengthen our societies.

Our approach must be clear: to stay competitive in a fast-changing world and to prepare the society of tomorrow, we must invest in our people and especially in our young people - in their skills, in their ability to adapt to change, and in their ability to innovate.

Now more than ever, therefore, we must rethink the role and value of higher education in our societies and economies.

Youth unemployment has now reached socially unacceptable levels: 23% on average in the EU, but 56% and 62% in Spain and Greece respectively. At the same time, there are currently more than two million unfilled vacancies in Europe.

And companies are facing shortages of skills, as highlighted by the recent appeal from several CEOs writing in the Financial Times about the lack of engineers in Europe. This paradox is not acceptable.

It is a paradox that reveals, above all, the mismatch between the skills provided and the needs of the world of work, and, to a certain extent, the failure of our education systems at large.

By 2020, we expect that 36% of all jobs in the EU will require high-level qualifications. But today only 26% of the current workforce is educated at tertiary level. Even if it is true that the highly educated are also hit by the crisis, experience clearly shows that the highly skilled fare better than others.

The skills paradox also reveals that the labour market in Europe is still fragmented, and mobility remains the exception. All of this exacerbates the current geographical mismatches and imbalances.

The urgency of the situation calls for a real change within higher education - particularly with regards to the quality and relevance of courses, the employability of graduates, and the needs of our companies.

This challenge is at the core of the EU agenda for modernising higher education which I presented in 2011. It is also a central message of the EU's broader economic policy debate – the European Semester – as well as the country-specific recommendations that the Commission proposed to all 27 Member States last week.

We need in particular to develop stronger partnerships between education systems and businesses. The two worlds need to work better hand in hand.

But this requires a strong commitment also from the business community itself. Companies must be ready to invest in education.

They must be willing to cooperate with higher education institutions on a long-term basis by supporting the development of new curricula or offering more places for internships for instance.

[The U-B Forum]

This dual responsibility explains why we created the University Business Forum in 2008. And it has proved a great success.

The debates and recommendations from previous Forums have led to new policy initiatives at European level, such as the Knowledge Alliances launched in 2011 and the Guiding Framework for Entrepreneurial Universities that will be presented here today.

But we still have a long way to go.

A recent Commission study shows that University-Business Cooperation in Europe remains marginal, with the majority of academics having little or no involvement in any cooperation.

Traditionally, higher education institutions have engaged with companies through research projects or by hosting trainees and interns. Whilst research remains essential, greater collaboration on educational content is crucial to linking education and innovation more closely.

Many of our universities are still teaching according to a 19th century model. This is not only obsolete but counter-productive. At the same time, I am happy to say that attitudes are changing, as globalisation and the continuing crisis in Europe inevitably exert pressure on the status quo.

Now is the time for action. This is the urgent message behind the Fifth University-Business Forum.

[Towards structured U-B partnerships]

Ladies and gentlemen,

We need to encourage education and business to engage more decisively in structured forms of cooperation. The benefits and impact of such partnerships are great, and they enrich the innovation potential of all organizations involved while improving the learning and teaching environments. They also help in creating a much needed common culture that bridges the gap between academia and business, and which is critical for the long-term success and sustainability of such collaborations.

At the 2011 University Business Forum, it became clear that one of the main barriers to university business cooperation was trust: how do we go about finding the right partners and securing funding for our projects?

Clearly some type of support needed to be put in place to help kick-start cooperation.

This led in 2011 to the launch of the Knowledge Alliances as a pilot action, thanks in no small part to the support of the European Parliament. Knowledge Alliances are structured partnerships, co-funded by the EU budget, which bring together partners from business and academia who are committed to delivering new and innovative teaching methods.

Innovation is one of the award criteria for these projects, and we put a strong emphasis on entrepreneurial mind-sets. The response to the pilot phase in 2011 was overwhelmingly positive. Six projects have been funded to date, and the outcomes of the first three will be presented later today.

We have now decided to significantly expand the ambition of and the support for these partnerships by introducing them as a major part of the new Erasmus for All programme which the European Parliament and Member states are still negotiating.

With a potential budget increase of 40% compared to current funding, Erasmus for All will become the leading programme supporting national higher education systems in their reforms.

For the Knowledge Alliances we have proposed a budget of 175 million euros over seven years, which should allow us to finance about 200 partnerships.

In the long-term, we hope that the Knowledge Alliances will create a "ripple effect". We want to see cooperation between higher education and the world of work becoming the norm rather than the exception, with greater awareness of the wider benefits for society at large.

So, our message is clear: starting next year, Europe will directly support partnerships between universities and business.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Our ambition, through this forum, is also to focus on entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial skills have become very fashionable in the past couple of years, and we have seen the rise of "entrepreneurial education".

But if we want to produce a real change of mindset in Europe towards a more entrepreneurial culture, where risk taking is rewarded, then our higher education systems must play their full role in giving support to spin-offs and start-ups.

But let us be clear on the facts. Most graduates today, whether or not their degree is in business, are not going to set up their own companies. Rather, they will become employees, mostly in SMEs, which make up the majority of European employers – the same SMEs that are battling in an ever more competitive and globalised market.

Increasingly, companies need people with a wider range of abilities. Employees are often asked to work across several different skill sets. This is a need that must be met within the education system rather than outside it after graduating. And this implies a change in the way that education is delivered as well as in the institutional offer.

Given the vague and often conflicting definitions of what constitutes an "entrepreneurial higher education institution", the Commission has developed the guiding framework you will hear about in the first workshop today.

This is an online self-assessment tool for higher education institutions looking to understand their current level of entrepreneurial development. It was designed in consultation with the OECD and a panel of European experts, and it will go live in the next few months.

The Commission, since 2008, has also created the European Institute of Innovation and Technology – the EIT – to address this European Paradox where, despite excellence in research, highly skilled graduates and dynamic companies, we are still lagging behind competitors in terms of business creation and bringing ideas to market.

With the EIT, we are changing the way we approach innovation in Europe; we train the entrepreneurs of tomorrow and we accompany them in building new companies.

And we do that by bringing together research centres, businesses and, for the first time in Europe, universities inside structured partnerships that are governed like companies. We call them KICs: Knowledge and Innovation Communities.

Three KICs are already up and running, and we expect to create six more, provided enough budget is allocated to the EIT in the on-going negotiations between the European Parliament and the Member States.

I would like here to thank the Irish Presidency for their hard work in the negotiations on Horizon 2020.

You will have the opportunity to hear more about the EIT and its KICs, as well as the development strategy of the EIT over the coming years, as several speakers at this forum are directly involved in the EIT.

[I would like to especially thank Maria Garana, Karen Maex and Gabor Bojar, all members of the EIT governing board, for having accepted to address this Forum].

Ladies and gentlemen,

Promoting education, research and innovation as well as the interactions between them will continue to be a top priority for the Commission in the years to come. But we are counting on your support and engagement to take it forward.

I hope that the discussions and case studies presented during this Forum will inspire all of us in this work.

Thank you for your attention and for being our partners in building Europe's future on the basis of high-level, modern and inclusive education and training.

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