Knowledge must be at the heart of plans to revitalise Europe

17 September 2020

The European University Association’s response to Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech

Under President Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission has set an ambitious agenda for Europe, for the green and digital transitions of the continent and for Europe’s role in the world. These ambitions require a solid knowledge base, sustained by common investments and policy frameworks, otherwise Europe risks becoming irrelevant.

On 16 September, von der Leyen used her speech on the State of the Union to promote a Europe that is ready for change “towards a new vitality”, taking on the big challenges of economic and social recovery after the Covid-19 crisis as well as facing the green and digital transitions. The speech held the promise of a Europe that will be more active in ensuring a sustainable future for its citizens through concrete actions for the Green Deal and digitalisation. There were new proposals for a Europe works together in areas like health, human rights and social justice. It was a strong and positive vision for re-emerging from the crisis and building a future-proof Europe with the wellbeing of its citizens at its heart.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown how important knowledge is for the resilience of Europe. Europe’s universities provide research in treatments and vaccines, new techniques for testing, and they have ensured that Europe’s 20 million students were not left alone during the lockdown. Universities did not close; they adapted and used their base in fundamental research to find solutions locally and globally.

Nevertheless, von der Leyen fell short of mentioning research and education, let alone recognising their key role for Europe’s sustainability and long-term resilience. Without an explicit vision for a Europe of knowledge, the vision of a strong future Europe cannot be realised. Vitality will only work if being supported and led by knowledge.

The green and digital transitions are great challenges that cannot be realised without critical and evidence-based reflection about where we are and where we want to go. Complex issues require deep knowledge as well as the ability to discover new perspectives and being ready for disruptive insights. Von der Leyen wanted to develop the next generation microprocessor, but Europe needs another level of ambition: sustaining the basic research that will lead Europe to develop new, yet unknown, disruptive technologies. This is the kind of high aim that Europe should be striving for, not just developing what we already know.

Europe needs to sustain its ability to produce deep knowledge. We have a unique system of cross-border cooperation in research and education to do this. This strength needs to be leveraged through ambitious investments and policy frameworks that build capacity and further cooperation.

The deal agreed by leaders of EU member states at the European Council in July is clearly not sufficient in this regard. EU investments in research, education and innovation must match the high ambitions for Europe’s future. The deal by the Council continues the underfunding of Europe’s knowledge base. This comes on top of the decade-long failure of member states to reach the commonly agreed Lisbon target of investing 3% of GDP in research and development. This lack of investment is a structural problem for Europe that could well have been mentioned in the speech.

The plans of the Commission to relaunch the European Research Area and create the European Education Area hold the promise of policy frameworks that can build capacity and strengthen European research, education and innovation - if taken forward in the right way and financed adequately. However, these initiatives did not feature in the speech. Hopefully, this is not a sign of de-prioritising the areas.

On the contrary: A European vision for knowledge must be a high priority; without such a vision the ambitions of the EU will be difficult to fulfil: The Green Deal will not succeed without new technologies, without education and without working together to find solutions. The digital transformation would continue to depend on the import of technologies. In this scenario, Europe will not be able to assert its sovereignty and the well-being of its population.

Europe has a uniquely diversified, cooperative university system. European higher education and research are leading globally, and Europe is host to some of the world’s most creative and dynamic innovation ecosystems. There are reasons to be optimistic about Europe’s strengths, as long as these strengths are recognised and sustained. Now is the time to stand together for ambitious joint investments and the much-needed reforms to secure a sustainable future. The speech by Ursula von der Leyen, focused on the opportunities in funding from Next Generation EU, but a short-term instrument to overcome the crisis will not make up for lack of long-term, sustainable investment.

The stakes are high: successful green and digital transitions and a sovereign Europe depend on recognising knowledge – research, education and innovation – as the foundation of all that we do for the good of Europe as whole.


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