The EU’s education commissioner, Ján Figel’, is pushing for change in European universities – to the economic benefit of all.
On the agenda: Bridging the industry-university gap
There's no mystery about it: many of the world's most important innovations have come from good collaboration between industry and university researchers. But in Europe, that dialogue is often difficult. Now, as part of its efforts to revive economic growth, the European Commission has made fixing the relationship a top priority.
In April, Ján Figel', the EU Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, announced a new effort to push for better collaboration. He is establishing a regular EU Forum for University–Business Dialogue, to share best practice, review university governance and explore common European approaches to the problem. Compared to the US, the Commissioner said in an interview, “we are a mosaic of different systems, different legislation. We need instruments eliminating obstacles” to better industry– university collaboration.
Ambassadors for innovation
Commissioner Figel' has appointed Microsoft International President Jean-Philippe Courtois as an Ambassador of the European Year of Creativity and Innovation 2009, charged with helping to make sure that the year is a success. The 25 Ambassadors reflect the full range of creativity: from business and science to art, architecture and philosophy.
The extent of the problem is documented in Commission background papers for the initiative. In 12 out of 16 economic indicators of innovation, such as patenting and scientific publication, the US and Japan lead the EU – creating what the Commission calls an “innovation gap”. In entrepreneurship – small business creation, funding and growth – most EU nations lag far behind China, the US and other major rivals.
And, according to business surveys, European universities are falling down on their most basic task: training the new workforce. The Confederation of British Industry found that 44 per cent of employers are disappointed with new graduates' awareness of the business world; 30 per cent fault graduates' skill at team working, communication and problem solving. And yet, somehow, according to Commission forecasts, the EU will have to fill 12.5 million new, highly skilled jobs by 2015.
But the Commissioner sees hope for change
The biggest issue, he says, is culture. “Everything starts with mentality.” In the past, he says, many European universities have viewed the world of business with mistrust. “There has been a fear that collaborating with firms results in the loss of values in education. But we have started to move away from that.
Trust is growing. We are seeing an increasing commitment on both sides to work together,” Figel' said. The EU initiative starts with suggestions to improve education – especially entrepreneurial education, “which is very weak in Europe,” the Commissioner says. It goes on to examine the governance and funding of universities (the US outspends the EU by a margin of two-to-one on higher education), the barriers to mobility of researchers between academia and industry, and other issues.
The Commission plans two or three additional meetings of the university– industry forum this year, to discuss governance, SME policy, and the role of university-business cooperation in regional development. However it happens, Figel' says, the climate for industry–university collaboration must improve in Europe. “There is an economic dimension” to the debate, that becomes more urgent in tough times, he says. “The most important message: this relationship is a win–win situation.”
Avoiding the economic pitfalls
At a conference on university– industry relations that he organised earlier this year, Commissioner Ján Figel' summed up the rationale for EU action: “We are now facing a very serious crisis of the finance sector, which is heavily impacting our economy. The crisis carries two major risks for our activities with it.
“First risk: That this squeeze on available resources might ‘motivate' public authorities to reduce spending for education or research.
This would be a big mistake. Such decisions would lead to a major capital and knowledge destruction with very negative effects for Europe's growth and employment prospects in the medium to longer term. Education, innovation and research play a crucial role for Europe, in particular in these difficult times.
“Second risk: That in these stormy times everybody will try to find the best solution by and for himself.
This would be the wrong way to go! It is especially in difficult times crucial that we work together, that we exchange our ideas, discuss and debate together problems and possible solutions. Working in partnership is more important than ever."