When I was invited by Nigel Thrift, the vice-chancellor of Warwick, to be a plenary speaker at the European University Association’s annual conference, I had never before heard of the EUA. But I immediately grasped the importance of the occasion, with 400 heads of higher education institutions in Europe attending, and the opportunity to find out what is going on in European higher education, as well as meeting many of its leaders. I was not disappointed.
EUA is a formidable organisation. It has over 800 member universities all over Europe and more than 50 staff headquartered in Brussels It organises many activities and publishes reports on issues related to higher education. For example, at the conference I picked up a recent report it published on the effect of global university rankings, an almost taboo subject, and I look forward to reading it. This conference is also the occasion for the transition from the current chair, Jean-Marc Rapp of Switzerland, to Marie Helena Nazaré of Portugal. It is notable that I was the only participant from Asia and one of only four from outside Europe.
I learned a lot at the conference. Apparently, European higher education is in turmoil. Much of the challenge has to do with money, or the lack of it. England is drastically changing its funding model for higher education, moving more of the financial burden from the state to the students (the tuition cap has moved up from almost nothing to £9,000 [US$14,000] over the last few years), who are eligible for loans which they only have to repay after graduation and receiving income above £21,000. David Willetts, minister of universities and science, explained at the conference that the UK government, in this "era of austerity”, has only a few choices: cut the number of students, or cut the support per student or have the student pay part of the cost.
Speakers from Austria and Finland also talked about political turmoil caused by charging tuition in their countries. With my background in the US and Hong Kong, this came as a cultural surprise to me. But in Europe the issue of tuition seems to go deeper than just finance and politics – it goes to the heart of whether a free university education is a civil right or a subsidised social service, whether it is for individual gain or for the public good, and whether students are customers or recipients of societal investment.
I also learned that many European countries are experiencing budget cuts for education, some quite severe (eg 50% in Latvia). A panellist predicted that even those countries that have been spared so far (for example, France) will get cuts soon. The mood was gloomy.
But there is also some good news. The Bologna process for promoting compatibility and mobility of students across Europe seems to be well embraced. The new European Research Council seems to be well loved. Even in the UK, no universities have gone into the red so far. I learned about examples of thriving academic-industry interaction, for example, the Warwick manufacturing group with over 1,000 international companies, over 450 staff and an annual budget of £120 million. Europe is also justifiably proud to have given the world the original model of a university (Bologna) and the modern idea of a research university (Von Humboldt).
Research funding seems to fare better than education funding in Europe, primarily driven by economic competitiveness motivations. However, there is concern about tilting the emphasis more towards applied research at the expense of curiosity-driven research and the humanities subjects. Anne Glover, science advisor to the EU president, challenged the universities to take more risk, to 'educate' rather than 'train' students, to produce graduates with better communication skills and to make maximum use of human capital by providing a better working environment for women.
One thing that did strike me was the almost exclusive focus on European issues. Towards the end of the first day of the conference, someone commented that no speaker had mentioned China, India or even the US. Well, I did talk about China and the US in my speech, but that was during the very last panel on the second day. But I did get the feeling that European academia is currently a bit more inward-looking and consumed by internal issues. I’d argue that the really big changes in higher education are happening outside Europe, especially in the developing world and what happens there will have significant impact on European universities in the future. Europe should take heed.
*Professor Tony Chan is the President of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He was formerly dean of physical science at UCLA and assistant director of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate at the US National Science Foundation.
The European University Association annual conference took place at the University of Warwick, UK, 22-23 March, 2012.