Everybody knows we’re living in difficult times. Most people accept a need for some form of austerity as we work through the crisis, but there are disagreements about the scale and range of the cuts. If we cut too fast or too hard, will we hurt the economic recovery we’re trying to encourage? The European Students’ Union has sent us a comment. They worry that slashing education budgets is a short-sighted strategy that will harm us in the end:
Tuition fees are going up majorly, creating wider gaps in education levels between the countries. This is not only threatening to the European identity and the feeling of European citizenship, but it is also causing major problems in the longer term… The EU should really urge member states to invest more and better in higher education and to unite in making sustainable plans for the future of higher education.
We asked Riccardo Perissich, the Former Director General for Industry in the European Commission, to comment. He agreed in principle, but questioned whether the idea would work in practice:
I think they’re right – all governments will be called to approve austerity measures, which will imply cutting expenditure, but I think it would be a catastrophic mistake to cut budgets for higher education. Whether the EU can make a difference, since this is a national point of competency, I’m not sure.
However, rather than giving up and leaving the issue to national governments, Mr. Perissich suggested the situation should be changed to encourage greater EU involvement in the field of education.
It would be useful, at the European level, to select a small number of sites of excellency and to handle them as, so-to-speak, federal institutions like in Switzerland. As you know, education in Switzerland in carried out at the level of the canton. However, there are certain institutions that are run by the federal government. I think this might be an interesting model for the EU – the development of “centres of excellence” in research. They do exist in Europe, but they are insufficiently connected, fragmented and, again, too national. Is it utopian to propose that some of them should be considered “federal institutions” as it is the case for the Zurich Polytechnic?
Finally, he suggested one other way in which the EU could play a bigger role in education:
My suggestion is that Erasmus, one of the biggest European successes, is made genaral and, if possible compulsory.
Compulsory military service is common in many countries, why not compulsory study in another European country? Or is this taking European integration too far? We’ll take Mr Perissich’s idea to the European Students’ Union to see if they have any feedback.
Although I agree that education and innovation are necessary and should get sufficient resources – yet alone to find solutions for more endurable energy sources -, there should also be attention to people who have not the capacities to obtain several diplomas. Because they too are needed to keep a society functioning. Now the impression is being given that those people, and they make up for a much larger part of society than the more intelligent among us, are being neglected, that they are not important. Perhaps this attitude is one of the reasons of EU citizens are turning their back to the EU project ?
And yes, this is linked to the topic of tuition fees, which I think is a wrong debate. Not the input of as much as possible students to universities is important, but having an education system that really tries to find the strenghts of young people, and to help them to foster these strenghts in order to be able to help society further. In the current system too many young people with great capacities (of all kind) are ‘lost’ as they don’t adapt to the schooling system, hence don’t have the diploma that would give them the possibility to use their capacities.
I wonder how technology is going to affect education over the coming years. It’s becoming easier and easier to get access to educational materials and courses cheaply online – and I wonder if this will help make education more inclusive and also encourage “life-long learning” in virtual classrooms.
A different approach (but an interesting experiment nonetheless) is that of philosopher AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities – a private higher education institute closer to the American model: http://www.nchum.org/
Instead of creating a few EU universities, we would rather see the European Commission to come up with a plan to solve social problems and financial obstacles that students face when trying to study. We do not need more excellency but rather more students and graduates (this is also one of the goals in the EU 2020). It the EU would fund Higher Education directly, we would like to see a programme that funds universities that do projects on quality assurance, on accessibility of higher educatiom etc. Such programmes would be more beneficial for EU in the long run.
In financing excellent HEIs or specific federal research Institutes we furthermore see a couple of problems:
1. EU2020’s aim to reduce the drop out rate to 10% would be completely useless. How should we reduce the drop out rate when we don’t even have the enrollment rate (in the case of cutting budgets to universities all over Europe, leaving only federal ones). Not only national education but national economy will be threatened by this move. Since we do strive to have EU unity, diversification is a value that couldn’t be left aside. People won’t give up their national identity. Even in a single country we all have different regions with diversified culture. This doesn’t mean that people can’t live together under the same nationality and the same rules of that particular country. So, following this proposed solution, it will also be very hard to increase the percentage of people finishing tertiary education, especially those aged over 30.
Let’s also not forget that competitiveness increases quality at the first place. If we have less supported universities, any of European wide changes which we would like to implement in the future will be facing difficulties. Once the EU shows them they are not important enough, it would be much harder to motivate them for the future.
2. Inclusive growth as one of the main EU aims, should foster territorial cohesion, social and economic cohesion through economy based on the high-employment. Territorial cohesion as such aims to foster the development of EU regions, promoting territorial integration while making a strong EU coherence. But regions are consisted of countries, different nationalities striving for different economic and therefore educational needs. If we don’t respect this, it’s useless to fight for the EU2020 then as it wouldn’t make any sense. If the idea is supported, only countries where excellent universities would be taking place, will grow in economical sense. Knowledge gained on those wouldn’t be easily applicable on the national level, so we would also threaten employability on the national but also EU level.
3. What is happening with mobility in the case of supporting only a couple of federal universities? We think: “More or less nothing”. Mobility will be killed by this decision.
Concerning the idea to make the Erasmus programme compulsory: this could be a good idea, but if it would be made compulsory, then it should be achievable for students’ of lower socio-economic background. The EU can play a big role in providing diverse and quality education through other programmes that he is mentioning, like Erasmus. The Erasmus needs more money in order to allow everybody to actually go abroad – since the biggest problem is not about whether students are not willing to go. The main problems are related to not having proper support for students that come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
04/11/2011 Rudolf Strohmeier, Deputy Director General of Research and Innovation for the European Commission, has responded to this comment.
Thanks very much for your response! Your argument about greater inclusiveness is similar to Nico’s – and you make some interesting arguments. We’ll take your ideas and comments and bounce them off some more policy-makers to see what they think – then try to post a response.