Modernising European Universities

Some notes for the speech to the European University Business Forum in Brussels last week. Key messages:

  • universities were designed for a paper based communication technology which is outdated;
  • the prevailing position that the universities have had on education and research and their other functions is coming to an end;
  • universities need to change;
  • updated Lisbon strategy is sending some messages in this respect, but there is a limit to what politics can do;
  • the change must be initiated from within the universities; for this they need more freedom, but also more competition and market orientation;
  • universities should be less of an industrialized mechanism to crank out graduates and more of a community of teachers an students, shaping minds rather that transferring knowledge.

Dear X, dear y, ladies and gentleman,

It is a pleasure etc. etc. …

I was lecturing design communication, how professionals communicate when they design and build. And there is something interesting if you look at the history of architecture, important also for our discussion here today. In building structures what is difficult is to create big spans, big domes and volumes. And if money is not an object, this is what rulers and architects went for.

For a long long time the largest dome was Hagia Sophia in the capital of Eastern Roman Empire, 31 meters, built around year 500. About 1000 years later the city then called Istanbul was a capital of perhaps the richest country in the region and they managed 26 meters with the Suleymaniye Mosque. A few years later, however, they managed 42 meters with the St. Peter's in Rome.

What happened in between was communication revolution - the paper communication revolution. During the middle ages parchment was available to few for selected topics such as copying the bible and a few greek classics, think name of the rose! After the technology how to make cheap paper and principles of print come, via the silk route from China to Europe. Paper becomes available to many, for day-day tasks.

The first communication revolution made a transition from communication available to few to communication available to many. Impact not only in printing books, drawing designs for buildings, specialization of professions, collaboration but also innovation process, science&technology, ways to do business (globalization), society in general and of course the universities. It paved the way for a scientific and technological monopoly of the west.

This monopoly is coming to an end. United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers, China graduated 600,000 and India 350,000. ½ of software developed in India, ½ of Fortune 500 outsource software work to India, new R&D centers of Microsoft, Cisco, Google, IBM … are in Asia, not Europe. By 2020 majority of scientific papers in sci&tech will be written by Asians. Out of top 10 universities only 2 in Europe, none on the continent. In the top 50 Europe is not doing well at all. Last but not least, I'm sure in this conference there will be a mention of the Shanghai rankings. Shanghai as in Shanghai, China! Not Bologna rankings or Oxford rankings. Shanghai rankings.

Today's universities are founded on paper based collaboration, not only textbooks, written assignments. The paper 'philosophy' makes knowledge static / printed on paper. There is a clear role separation of teacher-learner. Because of the paper as the communication medium the teacher-learner are close together in time and space. Pedagogy model is that of transmission of knowledge.

However, we are living at a time of the second communication revolution. Electronic communication has been around for more than a century, like some kind of paper was available for millenia. But though the internet, electronic communication is democratically available to all, for all kinds of uses and there is more to the Internet than just fast, electronic paper and videoconferencing and screen sharing replacing the phone calls.

In particularly the technologies around Web 2.0. Web-technology that aims to facilitate participation. It is two way, bottom up and top down. It is about getting people involved. Things happening outside the wall. Ideas outside the box. It promotes creativity of the masses.

Web 2.0 is leading to University 2.0

There are new roles for teachers: coaches and mentors of students, facilitators for learning, media and tool design, virtual tuition, examiners and advisers. There are also new roles for students: active learning, collaboration among them and with teachers, team work. So universities again becoming more of a community of teachers and students!

There are some other megatrends as well in addition to 2nd Communication Revolution: 3rd Industrial Revolution and low carbon economy, Conceptual Age, Globalisation. They invite us into rethinking the traditional functions of the university as well. According to literature, the functions include:

  • Education & research: today knowledge increasingly obtained outside universities, companies have on-line courses, materials on the internet, research is done outside universities, in business. The paradigm of open innovation places innovation outside the borders of institutions, outside the box.
  • Raising and socialization of elites. Universities are where most of population now ends up. It is not about the elites any more. The socialization is also happening on-line.
  • Creation and maintenance of values. In the positivist tradition, universities have increasingly evolved to teach about facts and knowledge, not about values. But Europe's care for people and Europe's care for the environment could get more room.
  • Development of civil society. This too is increasingly organised on-line.
  • Support of the nation state. What nation state. Universities are increasingly international and nation states are part of the European Union.

Universities are loosing their near monopoly positions on these issues.

The political response is Lisbon Strategy.

In spring 2008 we are launching the second three year cycle. The key issues include:

  • Europe that cares for people: Implementation of a comprehensive flexicurity concept, flexible work arrangements, how about universities?, but with emphasis on education and human capital.
  • Europe that cares for nature: Transforming Europe into low carbon economy. R&D breakthrough needed in energy related fields.
  • For a more entrepreneurial Europe, Deepening the Single Market, Support growth of SMEs.
  • For a more creative Europe: Investing in people, knowledge, creativity and innovation.The creation of fifth freedom, the freedom of movement of knowledge.

Knowledge as 5th freedom is important to the discussion of modernisation of universities. It is about free movement of knowledge in the heads, on paper, on media, on the web; it is about open access to knowledge and open innovation. And in such an open European knowledge space there is a need for protection of knowledge like a European patent and the handling of IPR.

We must call for investing more and more effectively in research, creativity, innovation and higher education. We must foster scientific excellence, cross border mobility of talents - students, teaching staff, researchers, build up scientific e-infrastructure and enable high speed internet usage, call for modernization of the universities and implementing higher education reforms.

Creativity is the horizontal issue in the four themes. Innovation and creativity - not only scientist and engineers, everybody can be creative. Competitiveness is also about how to make talents entrepreneurial. The care for people should concentrate on how to educate, attract and retain talent, how to make talent entrepreneurial and how to flexibly employ talents. The care for environment is also expressed in making it into a value and into a business opportunity.

But there is so much more that can be done

A change is needed, but the question is who can bring this about this change. I have listed what the updated lisbon strategy has in stock. Governments are not good at creating excellent universities. In the Shanghai rankings the EU universities are not doing to bad for the 50-500 spots, where they are really bad is the 1-50 spots. Our system is egalitarian and is promoting the average university and seems to be killing the competition among the universities for the top spots. This suggests governments generally can't create the top universities.

These are either a result of a market competition of privately owned universities or efforts of elites in some exceptional universities that are willing and able to purse the path of excellence. As a professor I would dare to say that we need to change, that we are willing to change, but we must be given the power to change. To be free to hire and fire, to be free free to manage finances, free to set salary contracts, free to pursue entrepreneurial ideas. As a politician I would need to add that if taxpayer is providing the money autonomy is indisputable, but has to be limited by the accountability and it has to be given into the hands of the best, not to the average faculty.

In conclusion

Big changes out there are challenging the dominance of universities in providing education, research, shaping elites, maintaining values and supporting intellectual foundations of a nation state. There will be no going back, but universities remain to be essential in providing the very top quality of the above and to do so they must get back to their roots.

The term university originates from "community of students and teachers" and universities again must become more like this community. They must encourage thinking, asking, wondering. They must be less concerned with what the industrial revolution did to universities: thinking of inputs and outputs, cranking out students with a standard set of "knowledge", becoming, like Heidegger feared a "mind numbing trade school" but more concerned with shaping minds.

As William Inge put it: The aim of education is the knowledge not of fact, but of values. With the challenges of the mankind ahead, not forgetting about core human values may be the most important task of all.

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