Higher education must be at the heart of Lisbon, says Figel'
Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism Commissioner Ján Figel' has made a plea for higher education not to be sidelined by the focus on research within the Lisbon agenda. 'More investments in research and in higher education need to go together, and should largely serve to reform and renovate the sector in the direction of quality and excellence, flexibility and responsiveness and openness to Europe and the world,' said the Commissioner. Mr Figel' used his presentation to underline the key role that higher education plays in increasing competitiveness, and emphasised that in the re-launched and re-focused Lisbon strategy, the role of universities in building the future of Europe remains as important as before. The Commissioner indicated that higher education is, in fact, central to Lisbon, and welcomed the involvement of colleagues in the Commission in the reform of the sector: '[The] strategies for the future development of our higher education are not an education-only task within the European Commission. The participation of directors and staff from other DGs, who are in charge of policy and funding priorities for research, employment, economic growth and regional development, is therefore of utmost importance.' Much of the research needed in order to create a Europe of knowledge is carried out within universities. Referring to the 2004 report by Wim Kok assessing the Lisbon strategy, Mr Figel' underscored this fact, saying: 'The recent report of the high level group chaired by Mr Wim Kok stressed the importance of building a highly performing R&D [research and development] system; there is not the least doubt about this, but the Kok report failed to underline explicitly that it is only possible if based on a system of strong and vibrant higher education institutions.' The Commissioner claimed that Europe's higher education institutions are now in a new phase of growing together, but said that more must be done at national level in order to optimise this process. Reform has been stalled by a lack of funding - necessary for increasing curricula flexibility, training university staff for professional management, establishing student recruitment and support facilities and strengthening a university's image abroad - and by restrictive national regulations. This 'raises the issues of autonomy and governance; university autonomy is not some old-fashioned medieval privilege, it has been recognised over time because it has a 'raison d'être' which is precisely to place higher education and research in a position to make its full contribution to society,' said Mr Figel'. '[A]utonomy is actually a basic condition for responsiveness; this is why it should be addressed today from the specific angle of adaptability and incentive for change,' he added. The Commissioner made it clear that he is not asking all universities to adopt the same aims and to follow the same path. 'Uniformity leads to the exclusion of all those who are not in tune with the single model available,' he said. Increased diversity with regard to target groups, exit and entry points, content, learning methods, and type of research is more important, he explained. Making Europe's universities the most attractive in the world may be a difficult challenge while the US is investing significantly more in its higher education system. On average, Europe invests 1.1 per cent of GDP in its universities, compared to 2.3 per cent in the US. Investment is less than one per cent in some EU Member States. 'I fear that if in some countries universities do not have the financial means to fund [reforming] measures, they may be placed at a lasting disadvantage with respect to others,' said Mr Figel'.