There are some obvious points to be made.
First, the crisis in Eurozone is not just a European crisis, but is also entwined with the global financial system. The outlook forecast in the media is that Eurozone cohesion could unravel fast and that austerity, high unemployment, social unrest, high borrowing costs and banking chaos are likely to stay. Clearly, the effects of such a crisis are worth worrying about - but are quite unpredictable.
Second, in Europe policy goals are likely to stay stable in the short term. The European Higher Education Area and European Research Area are bigger than the Eurozone and, therefore, the Eurozone crisis will not necessarily directly affect the vision of Europe 2020 as the world's most competitive knowledge economy.
It is no surprise to hear the European Commission's recent announcement of the plan to expand Erasmus and double the number of mobile students across Europe. For that, there will be a funding increase of around 70% compared to the current seven-year budget, bringing the aggregate to around EUR19 billion (US$25 billion) for the 2014-20 programme.
Furthermore, the European Commission on 30 November presented a package of measures to boost research, innovation and competitiveness especially in science and key technologies under the Horizon 2020 programme (2014-20), for which EUR80 billion (US$108 billion) will be invested. That said however, and third, patterns of mobility and of academic 'degree' and 'career' mobility within Europe will certainly be affected by financial burdens at both national and individual levels, especially in southern Europe countries.
There will also be the effects of immigration controls on the 'world reach' of Europe. The new immigration cap and the introduction of higher tuition fees in the UK from 2012 mean that the number of international students going to the UK from outside the EU is likely to drop, for instance. In the UK, the effect of higher tuition fees to be introduced next year is already visible in the latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures showing a 15.1% fall in applications from UK-born students.
Autumn 2012 is when fees at many universities will rise to £9,000 (US$14,200) a year, and it is likely that the number of European student applications for UK university degree courses will drop overall as well. In contrast, the number of British students applying for European degree courses has increased since the announcement of the higher tuition fees at home. At the same time academics, especially from the countries hardest hit by the Eurozone crisis, or academics who find it difficult to develop academic careers on their home ground, will consider migration to other European countries where English is used at work.
In this regard, the UK higher education and research sector is likely to be an attractive destination for many European academics. As indicated in the recent Academic Cooperation Association's 'Mapping Mobility' study in June 2011, the UK, Norway and Switzerland have relatively high proportions of foreign, or foreign-born, academics.
Fourth, given the new patterns of academic degree- and career-mobility within the European higher education and research areas, the potential impact of the current Eurozone crisis on higher education, along with the further expansion of Erasmus mobility and the record rise in EU research funding, may also mean a new 'hierarchy' and a new 'concentration' of mobile talents within a more stratified European higher education system.
The European Higher Education Area consists of at least 6,000 institutions and more than 30 million students. Within the area, however, there seems to be a new stratification emerging as reflected in the world university rankings, and a new concentration of talents - given the patterns of transnational academic mobility. Linked with this is the fifth point: the continental European tradition of public funding for higher education is likely to be affected by neoliberal market principles. New public management restructuring processes have been going on for many years across Europe, to reform university governance and management structures, often resulting in mergers and corporatisation of public higher education institutions.
Furthermore, Denmark, Sweden and The Netherlands in the past few years started to charge full cost fees for international students from outside of the EU, and there is increasing pressure on national tuition fees as well - for example, in The Netherlands and Belgium, as Hans de Wit commented in University World News on 18th September 2011. On the other side of Atlantic, it has been already argued that student loans in America have been analogous to the real-estate bubble: students have been urged to invest in something they cannot afford and do not need. The situation is not so different in the UK now, and the higher tuition fees and increasing student loans may also become a big issue of social inequality in many other European countries in the near future.
Both the quality of and fair access to higher education could be seriously put at risk. Thus, current 'mobility' policies and the role of universities and higher education systems as economic as well as science and cultural innovation institutions framed by the European Higher Education Area and European Research Area, are being called into immediate question by the shifting European economic geography divided between the North and the South, and also by the impending political debate about the role of the 'West' and 'Europe' in the world as international political and economic relations are rapidly changing on a world basis.
It would perhaps be well worth revisiting some of the contemporary and fashionable policy truths: that the world is a knowledge economy; that we are concerned with creativity and innovation in higher education systems; that universities are best run on a business model; and that the job of the social sciences is to provide research for policy-makers.
Before we freeze around the proposition that social sciences, such as economics, can confidently predict the future, we might as well review the questions we are asking the social sciences to sort out and ask again whether we are seeing an overconfidence in 'management' as a creative and liberating social technology especially appropriate for universities and for simultaneously inspiring and controlling academics.
We are living calmly with questions to which it seems answers are known: that is, what is the purpose and use of higher education in the public sphere of Europe - which is now named an 'Innovation Union'? What is the purpose and use of higher education - in a world in which serious efforts are being made to invent the managerial concept of 'impact' and link it with university funding?
What kinds of knowledge are European universities expected to produce - within ideologies such as 'robust and relevant research'? What will count as 'profit' for universities - a link with Libya? Our thinking about global economic and political relations and universities may not have been of the highest quality in the last couple of decades.
* Dr Terri Kim is a lecturer in comparative higher education at Brunel University in West London. Previously, she was a visiting scholar at the IEC Collège de France in Paris, and the department of international relations at the London School of Economics. She worked as a Brain Korea contract professor at Seoul National University, and was also an OECD-CERI consultant, invited to write a position paper on the globalisation of higher education. Her current research focuses on transnational academic mobility-migration and new knowledge creation in universities: a comparative analysis.