Debating Europe has been taking a look recently at both European education and at Europe’s place in the world in the context of the rise of China and other developing economies. Amongst other things, we’ve been discussing a suggestion on the platform from Riccardo Perissich, former Director General for Industry in the European Commission, who argued that the “Swiss” education model might be worth following. In other words: could a “European research space” be better developed through the use of European academies, run at the EU level? Might these allow member-states to concentrate both education and research efforts into “centres of excellence”?
We had a comment come in from the European Students’ Union that was fairly critical of this idea:
Instead of creating a few EU universities, we would rather see the European Commission come up with a plan to solve the social problems and financial obstacles that students face when trying to study. We do not need more excellency, but rather more students and graduates.
We also spoke to Rudolf Strohmeier, Deputy Director General of Research and Innovation for the European Commission, and asked him what he thought of this proposal. Whilst he didn’t endorse the idea of “EU academies”, he also disagreed with the European Students’ Union in that he thought “more excellency” was definitely necessary, and he warned that more needs to be done in terms of coordination of research efforts at the EU level.
We have to face a situation where Europe as a continent needs to focus and to bundle its means, at least in certain sectors, to get critical mass in competition. The fact that less than 10% of public research efforts are spent at the EU level means that greater coordination has the opportunity to create added value. We have to take a holistic view.
If Europe was a Swiss system, this would be interesting. One thing is education, and the other element is promoting excellence in research. 40% of Swiss professors are not Swiss nationals, so they obviously have quite an interesting scheme to attract intelligent people into their research sector. One could argue that the US after WWII profitted heavily from a brain-drain at the rest of the world’s expense. Why not Europe competing at the same level, and investing in this same kind of attraction?
In Europe, we face a problem because we often struggle to get our excellent research results into the marketplace. We have to cross this ‘valley of death’ much faster than in the past. To operate, particularly in certain high-tech areas, on a purely national level would not create this momentum and provide the market uptake that Europe as a continent would need to compete with the US and now China. So what we need is a European home market for these innovative products and services. And this implies a European scale from the outset, including certain pilot projects which can be highly costly. And to believe this can all be done at the member-state level… well, even the big member-states might have difficulty financing this on their own.
Finally, we also spoke to Michele Trickey, Vice President of AIESEC (the largest youth-run organisation in the world). Michele was more sceptical about the benefits of creating “centres of excellence”, and wondered if greater competition might rather yield better results.
I wonder what would be the benefit of EU management. At AIESEC, we find a lot of success in being a “platform.” That is, we try to control or manage as little as possible. Instead, we enable multiple centers to access global resources. In our experience, if you have a single centre that’s very good at something, then innovation slows as others wait for that centre to come up with something new. We see much more innovation come out of competing centres, which keep the system alive and self-perpetuating. Each of them innovates independently, and then we support them to come together and share. Then they learn from the other, leading to greater net innovation. It’s a wonderful learning process for the youth who run the organisation.
What do YOU think? Do European member-states need to concentrate their efforts in terms of research and education? Should they set up “centres of excellence” to compete with China and the US? Or should the EU merely try to facilitate and promote greater competition between existing institutions? Let us know your thoughts in the form below and we’ll take your comments to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.
Rudolf Strohmeier is Deputy Director General of DG Research and Innovation in the European Commission.
Michele Trickey is Vice President, AIESEC.