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Commission calls for overhaul of university system

Cutting-edge research has always been the preserve of universities, and is the reason they were first formed - to enquire. A European, Plato, arguably invented the university with his Academy in the fourth century BC, teaching philosophy, mathematics and gymnastics. Institutio...

Cutting-edge research has always been the preserve of universities, and is the reason they were first formed - to enquire. A European, Plato, arguably invented the university with his Academy in the fourth century BC, teaching philosophy, mathematics and gymnastics. Institutions resembling modern universities grew up in India, Persia and China in the third to fifth centuries. Europe today houses some of the world's oldest remaining and best universities. While European research remains vitally important, the ability of universities to transform research into economic benefit has been very much hit-and-miss. The reasons for this are complex. But, while the European economy generally lags behind those of the US, Japan and emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil, calls are growing louder for a new approach to incorporating research into the European economic strategy and Lisbon agenda. The recent report by the Aho group proposed exactly such a scheme - the group devised a blueprint for transforming Europe's economy and research by placing research at its centre. Now the Commissioner for Education and Training, Ján Figel', has joined the call. 'Although they train and teach millions of people each year, Europe's higher education systems remain hampered by a number of obstacles, many of which are decades old. The Communication adopted today is a contribution to the debate on the necessary modernisation of EU's universities,' he said. The nine new proposals for universities are as follows: - Boost the proportion of graduates spending at least one semester abroad or with industry. - Give students access to national loans and grants wherever in the EU they decide to study or conduct research. - Harmonise European degrees, bringing them in line with professional qualifications, and ensure that European degrees are fully recognised outside Europe. - As part of a research career, introduce training in intellectual property management, communication, networking, entrepreneurship and team-working. - For Europe to adapt to its ageing population, ensure courses allow greater participation for older people, equipping them with the skills that Europe's workforce needs. - Regardless of their background, the best students must be given access to national student fee and support schemes, so they have the opportunity to participate in higher education and further research careers. - Review the funding systems for universities, changing the focus of research to output, and giving universities more say in their long-term financial sustainability, particularly in research. - Give universities more autonomy and accountability, so they can adapt quickly. This could include revising curricula in light of new developments, building ties between disciplines, and focusing on overall research areas, such as renewable energy or nanotechnology, rather than specific disciplines. This could also apply to universities having more autonomy at the most basic level - in choosing teaching and research staff. European Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik has already put his weight firmly behind the Aho-group report, and now the new university proposals. 'Universities are power-houses of knowledge generation,' he said. 'They will need to adapt to the demands of a global, knowledge-based economy, just as other sectors of society and economy have to adapt. The ideas we are putting forward today should help kick-start a debate among Member States, and also within universities themselves,' he said. The proposals have emerged from the same forum that generated the Aho report - the 2005 Hampton Court European Council. The proposals are intended to move Europe along towards a knowledge-based economy. In addition to the nine proposals, the Commission wants to continue to support academic centres through funding, such as under the forthcoming Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), the Lifelong Learning Programme, the Competitiveness and Innovation programme (CIP), and the Structural and Cohesion Funds. The Commission also calls for universities to develop and share good practice.

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