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From digital makers to digital takers: universities and the digital transition

Universities support Europe’s agenda for digital leadership in their role as digital technology makers. At the same time, they must adapt to the growing digitalisation of research practice, but their role as technology takers is less visible in that agenda. As Sergiu-Matei Lucaci argues, the EU pursuit of competitiveness in the digital economy risks overlooking the impact of new technologies on knowledge production, and universities should seek to rectify this.

A political agenda to accelerate the development and uptake of digital technologies has been emerging in Europe in recent years. What is commonly referred to as the digital transition is a systematic alignment of digital policy with ongoing digitalisation, whereby policy aims to steer and further propel the latter, instead of just responding to it. When combined with the quest for green economic growth, the result is the so-called “twin transition”, a cornerstone of EU politics.

The overall ambition of this approach resonates with universities, as institutions with a mission to help solve societal challenges. Yet, doing so strategically depends on tackling a discrepancy in the twinning of green and digital: whereas the green transition is driven by a scientific case for reaching climate neutrality through clear milestones for 2030 to 2050, the case for the digital transition is more political. In effect, science is both the core rationale of the green transition as well as the main asset of universities, who should be involved in implementing policy lessons stemming from their research. The digital transition, however, stands apart because policy lessons seem to result largely from the need of digital industries to achieve scale and compete globally, triggering an ambitious drive for European leadership.

Against this backdrop, the university sector may struggle to find its place in a process in which science does not set the tone, with the implications being twofold. One the one hand, universities can support Europe’s push for digital leadership in their role as digital technology makers, advancing the field of artificial intelligence, blockchain or quantum computing. On the other hand, they also have to adapt to the growing use of digital tools in research, and the place of science in the digital transition will only be clear once policy makers understand how digitalisation is changing knowledge production. Put differently, the transition should mirror universities’ interests as actors impacted by the adoption of technologies, just as much as it relies on them for the very development of those technologies.

A digital transition for universities

In the bold terms of its 2020 digital strategy, the European Commission claims that “Europe can own this digital transformation and set the global standards when it comes to technological development.” While by no means a marginal actor in this area, Europe does grapple with the multi-layered nature and varying pace of digitalisation, where it excelled in some initial stages but lacked or lost its first-mover advantage in others. As such, the digital strategy and related legislation indicate a revitalised drive to not only make up for lost ground, but to also claim European leadership.

Where exactly this leadership could materialise depends on political dynamics, which have so far generated distinct priorities. For example, a recent Commission study mentions the enabling role of digital connectivity for climate goals, the fight against disinformation and election interference, the transparency and accessibility of public institutions, and the ability of Europe to ensure a high standard of living based on home-grown digital technologies.

The university sector can undoubtedly make valuable contributions in many of these fields. But the question of what to prioritise and how urgently is tangled in a political mantra about leadership that offers no objective basis for a broad commitment across society. The logic of the digital transition is essentially instrumental, if compared to the green transition: while science establishes sustainability as an end in itself, politics frames digitalisation as an enabler for attaining global clout. The risk is that the scope of societal involvement in its delivery is more limited, namely that fewer non-industry stakeholders will support the EU digital agenda in contrast to the green agenda. Consequently, if this is to be a digital transition for universities, they should focus on rectifying EU initiatives that lack a comprehensive vision of science in the context of digitalisation.

Digital makers vs. digital takers

Research practice and culture are undergoing major digitally-induced transformations. In a recent study, the OECD notes that some research avenues are no longer prohibitively expensive or impossible thanks to digital tools. This comprises, for instance, automating human-like cognitive functions through artificial intelligence, or developing tamper-proof mechanisms for trust and assurance. Conversely, it also notes researchers’ concerns about being rated based on their digitally-enhanced productivity and their digital footprint, which can encourage a celebrity culture in science, the premature diffusion of findings, or hypothesis-free research. Knowledge about these trends needs to improve, especially as they spill over into areas like research assessment, researchers’ access to, and usage of, big data, and more generally, their level of data literacy and skills.

Such issues are less visible in the EU digital agenda as compared to the quest for market size and global reach, and the consequences for universities closely mirror their dual role as digital makers and digital takers. Firstly, universities already contribute to that quest through their third mission, delivering innovation, entrepreneurship and skills, often through strategic partnerships with industry. From this angle, there is plenty to celebrate and encourage. Secondly, this should not lead to instrumentalising universities, whereby the EU privileges their role as digital makers for political ends, but pays less attention to how well they withstand the impact of digitalisation in fulfilling their mission as knowledge producers. Effectively, the risk is that a regulatory agenda focusing mainly on industrial competitiveness will turn universities into collateral damage if their own interests are not understood. As outlined earlier this year by Karen Maex, Rector of the University of Amsterdam, some major challenges are already obvious, such as how much to rely on private providers for storing data from publicly funded research, how much free access to data is enabled by their functionalities, or how much control universities have over the processing of data via digital research tools.

These are just a few questions that should alert universities to how an incomplete EU digital agenda can drive a wedge between their two roles. Consequently, they should reflect on how advocacy strategies can better reflect their needs as adopters of digital technologies for scientific work.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Sergiu-Matei Lucaci

Sergiu-Matei Lucaci is Policy & Project Officer at the European University Association. He works on European research and innovation policy, with a particular emphasis on innovation ecosystems and the green and digital transitions.

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