The European plan

By Martin Ince, convener of the QS Academic Advisory Board

Anyone working in a European university may think they have enough to do already, but the European Commission does not agree. In a September policy document, it has put them front and centre in the hunt for economic growth.

The Commission’s major economic document, the Europe 2020 Strategy, already emphasises higher education and research as the route to higher skills and higher levels of innovation.

Despite many years of urging from Brussels, only about six per cent of the European workforce are researchers, lagging Japan at 11 and nine for the US. In addition, European targets for research and development spending have almost all been missed, and with the exception of the UK, European universities’ performance in world rankings is best described as modest.

In EU customary style, this Commission document regards further European integration as an important part of the solution. It has persuaded education ministers of member states to aim for 20 per cent of students to do at least some overseas study or training by 2020, twice the current figure. It also wants the European Quality Assurance Register to get involved in academic quality assurance in the hope that common standards will encourage mobility and make qualifications from other European nations more acceptable.

The problem with these initiatives is that education, at school and university level, is one of the roles which national governments, and in some cases devolved administrations, guard most enthusiastically. However, the existence of the Framework Programme for research, the European Research Council, and a range of initiatives on student mobility and qualifications recognition, does give the Commission some influence over higher education priorities.

It is now setting up a “high-level group” to produce new proposals for the modernisation of higher education. This group’s members will be announced in 2012. They are intended to produce their first report, on excellence in teaching, in 2013.

The document also opens up the possibility of new streams of cash for member state universities. The Commission may support universities to develop internationalisation strategies reaching beyond the EU, in the search to make Europe a prime destination for top talent. Officials have acknowledged that while the US has long been a magnet for bright academics, Asian nations are now aiming to attract them too.

The Commission is especially keen on anything that gets academic research into industrial use. It is already running some pilot projects called Knowledge Alliances which are intended to do this. Next could be European Industrial Doctorates and special Doctoral Schools with an innovation mission. There are also plans to build up traineeships and other forms of graduate training.

These plans have much in common with Talent 2030, a UK-level campaign launched in October by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, a joint business/academic forum. Its main call is for a campaign to get more women into manufacturing and engineering. To do this it suggests much stronger connections between companies and universities, and the establishment of a new elite manufacturing college for UK talent.

The Commission document is available on

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