Europe’s universities are upping their game for the new decade, to meet the challenges of our digital and green transitions, writes Amanda Crowfoot.
As the pandemic has shown, research and innovation in universities are central in our capacity to respond to crises. This is also true for the challenges of the digital and green transitions. Moreover, universities are a central part of the civic fabric, as places of expertise, debate and culture vital to European democracy. They are moving increasingly into the focus of EU policies as the European Research Area and the European Education Area start to take shape, and the contours of an EU “university policy” are getting clearer (with the European University Initiative as an important component of this).
For all these reasons, Europe’s universities have articulated a vision for 2030, “Universities without Walls”. In this vision, the key concepts are openness and sustainability. Openness means producing knowledge in the classroom (virtual or physical), in the laboratory and in the library through a dialogue with the rest of society.
Universities in 2030 will be institutions that are closely networked with many different societal actors. They will also stand firm in their values as places of critical thinking through which new ideas and knowledge are created, and as places where rigour and evidence are the main currency of exchange. Universities will also promote these values in society as a counterweight to conspiracy theories, fake news and ‘alternative facts’. Through their strengthened civic engagement, they will support Europe’s open, pluralistic and democratic societies.
The main framework for driving universities’ impact will be sustainable development. Universities will continue to produce knowledge based on the curiosity of researchers, expanding our understanding of the universe, society and the human condition. They will also continue to seek to apply this knowledge towards new solutions. The guiding principle will be to link knowledge and solutions so that people, the planet and prosperity are in balance. This involves monitoring the state of our planet and of society, as well as proposing ways to support a socially just equilibrium.
What can the EU do to facilitate the achievement of these ambitions? Universities are European players in their own right. They cooperate across borders, and they have built dense networks across the continent for decades. This is one of Europe’s strengths: our universities work together in a way that is unique to Europe, and our cooperative model must be protected. The multilateral structures of the European Union and the Bologna Process have been extremely constructive in fostering this collaboration. Funding through the framework programmes for research and the Erasmus+ Programme have also been key in making common, European projects possible. The aim of these unique multilateral structures must never be harmonisation, but rather building a system that is united in diversity.
Exchange at the European level about policies to be taken further at the national level is an important function of these multilateral structures. Action has then to take place at the level where it matters most, be it European, national, local or university level, in line with the principle of subsidiarity. To ensure policies are fit for purpose, universities must be represented in policy fora as stakeholders and this must be taken into account when building the new governance structures of the European Research Area and the European Education Area.
While these structures remain essential, the vision of “Universities without Walls” proposes concrete priorities for action. First on the list is a reform of academic careers. Academics play multiple roles in their universities and in society at large; they are researchers, teachers, innovators, facilitators and much more. However, they are mainly assessed on the basis of publications, preferably in prestigious journals. While publishing research results is a key part of their work, the way that this happens today focuses on just a small slice of academic activities.
Knowledge that is published in open access is, for example, often not assessed as highly as knowledge published in traditional journals. This is hampering the transition to Open Science, as well as collaboration between disciplines where, the major breakthroughs for sustainable solutions are likely to happen. Impact through innovation or social engagement needs more incentives as well.
Careers for academics are also often too precarious; people can go through decades of short-term, project-based positions before finding steady employment. Along the way, a lot of talent is lost. It is very welcome that these topics are on the agenda of the Portuguese EU Council Presidency; they deserve a new, European discussion.
Academic assessment, funding and accreditation of study programmes must also facilitate interdisciplinarity. Meeting the sustainability challenge will require disciplines to be brought together; COVID-19 is a health crisis, but it is also a social crisis, political and economic crisis. One field of knowledge is not enough to solve challenges like this. We need to discuss the barriers and obstacles to interdisciplinary work.
Lastly, universities across Europe will strengthen their civic engagement. With academic freedom under pressure in several European countries, it is important to underline the importance of being free to think. With this freedom comes the possibility to participate in debate and dialogue, promote evidence-based discussions and stop misinformation.
Another aspect of the civic mission is universities’ contribution to European identity and culture. Universities have benefitted from the European project, and they are committed to it. Their task is to promote reflection, including critically, about who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. As the “Future of Europe” debate is beginning, this will not be the least of their tasks.
This article was originally published by The Parliament Magazine on 15 February 2021.
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