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European Commission

Androulla VASSILIOU

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

Launch of new university ranking

Higher Education Conference - "Rankings and the Visibility of Quality Outcomes in the European Higher Education Area"/ Dublin

30 January 2013

Dear Minister Quinn,

Ladies and gentlemen,

First, let me thank the Irish Presidency for hosting this conference. I am particularly grateful that you decided to focus on the quality of higher education in Europe as it goes right to the core of the challenges we face.

Eighteen months ago I set out my vision of the type of higher education we need in Europe, in the Commission's Agenda for Modernising Higher Education. We need systems that are diverse, inclusive; linked to the needs of business and the labour market; that feed the development of our regions; and that help create the articulate, engaged citizens on which our democracies depend.

Higher education does not exist in a vacuum, of course; to a large extent, it is dependent on the quality of all the other sectors of education. So last November I underlined the need to rethink our entire approach to organising and delivering education across the whole system, from crèche to college & Universities. Even if each education sector is different, there are many common issues that need addressing. And quality is the key.

We face considerable challenges: The economic crisis, changing world demographics, the emergence of new competitors, new technologies and modes of working. All this means that Europe can no longer rest on its laurels.

We need to become more outward-looking and more innovative.

We need more people with high-end, university level skills and knowledge if we want to put our societies on a sustainable footing for the future.

Even now, despite the crisis, we do not have enough people to fill the highly skilled jobs that are being created. We expect these jobs to grow in number - 16 million of them - in the near future. In order to fill them, and to reach our potential as a society, we must enlarge our pool of talent. Higher education needs to become more inclusive. We must be able to draw on the talents of a wider range of people, from all sectors of society – and especially groups who have not traditionally taken part in higher education.

Change is never easy. Particularly at a time of severe budgetary constraints. But it is necessary. Because many of our universities are still delivering teaching according to a 19th century model. It worked well then. It even worked well for much of the 20th century. But it is not enough anymore. If we are to provide quality, relevant higher education to more students, from diverse backgrounds, we need a new approach.

Because people learn in different ways, we need to teach in different ways, through different means – and most of all, to think in different ways. New forms of teaching and learning such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are opening up new opportunities in education, and giving us a chance to reshape our systems.

And we must do this in an international context which has seen many more entrants to higher education worldwide, a huge expansion in the number of providers and a rapid increase in the quality of provision in many parts of the world. Europe needs to play a central role in the current global race for talents so to become an attractive place where to study and do research.

The Commission will come forward with ideas shortly on how the EU can contribute both to the internationalisation of our higher education institutions and to the greater use of new methods of delivering learning, to help make this transformation as straightforward and as effective as possible.

Our high-level group on the modernisation of Higher education, chaired by former President Mary McAleese, will soon present its recommendations on how to promote the quality of teaching and learning in a changing academic environment.

These structural reforms of our systems are especially important to make our universities more relevant and reactive to the needs of our society and our economies.

Within Europe we are still not managing to take the knowledge, the research and skills from within our universities and channel these into the wider world to create long-lasting benefits.

Because we are not thinking strategically enough about shaping our systems for the 21st century. Companies lack the structures to link into our research and innovation potential. We do not join up education with research and innovation. Our universities are not equipping students with the entrepreneurial and work-relevant skills they need.

Of course, there are exceptions. For instance the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the EIT, is proposing a new approach to innovation based on structured partnerships between universities, research centres and businesses. It has the possibility to act as a beacon for the spread of this approach across university education more generally.

But these exceptions need to become the rule if we are to properly use the potential of higher education to re-energise our societies and to organise a genuine mindset change towards a more entrepreneurial culture in Europe.

But let me stress that I am not proposing a 'one-size-fits-all' model; I do not suggest that we need 4000 Harvard or Oxford lookalikes in higher education. What Europe needs is a diversity of institutions that perform well across the variety of missions of higher education – so that students benefit from the best.

We all share responsibility for achieving this vision. Universities and colleges themselves, who are responsible for designing and delivering quality education. Public authorities, as active partners at regional and local level. Students and academic staff. And governments, who ensure their systems as a whole are designed and resourced to meet the changing demands.

Where does the EU fit into all of this? We may not have a university to run… but we have exceptional tools and programmes to help you get the best out of yours: Erasmus, Erasmus Mundus, Marie Curie and the Research Framework programme; the EIT, the structural funds, to bring direct funding on the ground.

The EU is also the best placed to help the different stakeholders to take a broader view of their performance, and create transparency beyond the national systems. For this we are developing tools and instruments to help translate one system to another, or to help one institution to collaborate with another, or to benchmark itself against its peers.

This is why, at EU level, we have decided to take forward a new multidimensional university ranking - U-Multirank - to have the fullest possible picture of our higher education landscape, so that we can identify the traits that make any institution outstanding; and use this knowledge to spread excellence in a diverse landscape.

Because what we need above all else, in order to drive up quality, is to ensure that students, professors and administrators are able to make deliberate choices based on objective information about the strengths and weaknesses of our institutions.

In the search for better information, rankings complement the many other valuable transparency tools that stimulate better quality and help our higher education systems work better together. Rankings can inform student choice; give feedback to institutions; help decision makers do their job.

And we need to face the truth: existing ranking systems attract considerable attention on a global scale from institutions, students and the media. Whether we like it or not, we cannot ignore them, despite the diversity in the quality and usefulness of these ranking.

Indeed, it is my belief that the current predominant focus of existing rankings on research does not help improve the overall level of higher education - higher education is much more than research excellence.

I acknowledge also that rankings are never perfect, as the European University Association's (EUA) valuable analysis has shown. Even if some are more transparent than others, there is always a subjective element which can distort the picture.

But I consider that U-Multirank is not an end in itself. Our purpose is certainly not to provide yet another blunt instrument on which reputations fall or rise.

U-Multirank is different. It will allow an institution - but also departments within institutions – to benchmark itself against its peers across borders; for many, for the first time ever. And not only against its peers in Europe, but in all quarters of the globe.

It won't give us a perfect view; but it can give us a much more rounded, fair and accurate image.

It will help us see how international our institutions are - because it is through international networks that we can deliver quality.

It will help us know how well they deliver teaching and learning; or transfer knowledge and promote innovation; or how they interact with their regions, to create skills and job opportunities and plough these back into the region.

It will be user-driven; individual users will be able to produce their own personalised rankings, from a selection of institutions that meet their needs.

In this way, U-Multirank will help students find the university or college that is right for them. It will help institutions make strategic decisions based on knowledge about what they do well, or what they need to improve, compared to their peers. It will provide information that policy makers can use to guide their decision making.

U-Multirank will help us to do all this. That is why it is fully worth the investment in time, energy and resources.

It will be a tool for all types of institution, not just the top 500 research institutions. Because Europe needs excellent universities across all missions: excellent research universities, of course; but also universities that excel in teaching, or in their international or regional footprint.

It will not be a one-shot exercise. U-Multirank is an evolving instrument that will need to improve over time.

But today we are launching the start of the implementation phase for this new ranking to become concrete.

I will not hide that it is an ambitious initiative and we have many challenges to overcome to make it a full success. One of the main challenges will be in the collection of data, as some of these data will have to come directly from the institutions.

In this perspective, I consider that it is extremely important that U-Multirank is not seen as an initiative which is done to the universities but with the universities. U-Multirank is first and foremost there for you, and I hope that through this conference everyone can understand the benefits of participating.

That is why I am so pleased that we have such a diversity of higher education stakeholders at this conference, from students and policy makers to institutions and organisations.

And I would like to launch an appeal to all of you to join and participate in this initiative. If we are to publish the first edition of the ranking already next year, the work begins now.

It is important, because we want all stakeholders to get involved, we need all of them to be part of the process of growing U-Multirank, so we can build right from the start on the very diversification of European higher education that we want to promote achieving greater transparency for higher quality.

Thank you very much.


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