Europe’s universities’ vision for the future of Europe

26 October 2021

The Conference on the Future of Europe is an initiative for all Europeans to voice their ideas and debate the future of our continent. As its contribution to this important debate, EUA is submitting the following on the role of universities in shaping the future of Europe:

Europe and the world are at a crossroad. We are facing immense challenges; finding a sustainable equilibrium between ecological, economic and social concerns, the digital transition and major political developments will be some of the main drivers of change for the new decade.

Education, research, innovation and culture are key to addressing these challenges. Europe’s universities uniquely unite these in their missions. They are keen to contribute to shaping a positive future for our continent with their academic values and missions. To be able to do this, universities need academic freedom and institutional autonomy, adequate public funding and enabling regulatory frameworks. It is in Europe’s keen interest to support them. Europe needs universities and universities need Europe.

Universities’ contribution to a positive future

Almost half of young people attend higher education, and many use universities for lifelong learning. An estimated 20 million students are learning at universities. Universities are the main source of new knowledge, and they are placed at the heart of Europe’s innovation ecosystems, collaborating with partners from many different sectors. Moreover, they are places of culture and reflection.

Universities are places of civic engagement; they are places of debate and exchange of knowledge that underpins democratic discussions in society as a whole. They also promote the values of critical thinking, intellectual rigour, respect for evidence and evidence-based arguments among their communities and beyond. These values are an important bulwark against populism and ‘fake news’, protecting one of the cores of a pluralist democracy.

In the common vision of Europe’s universities for the next decade “Universities without walls: A vision for 2030”, the interaction with society at large is centre stage. Only by cooperating with non-university stakeholders, incorporating their knowledge and experience, will universities ensure that we and future generations will live in a Europe where knowledge and technology work for the people and not the other way around. This is true for the cities and regions where universities are located, but it is also true in terms of the wide international networks that universities sustain within Europe and beyond. Student and staff mobility as well as close cooperation between institutions in different countries have been major examples of building a sense of European belonging for millions of individuals. The increasingly networked and collaborative character of universities in Europe is a strong example of European solidarity.

In the global context, universities play the role of building bridges to the world through their manifold connections to partners across the globe. They bring knowledge and contact from far abroad to their countries and regions. At the same time, universities and the knowledge they create are central to Europe’s strategic and technological sovereignty. If Europe wants to have access to, and control of, tomorrow’s technologies, it needs to have research and innovation, and to train the people that will use these technologies. This cannot happen without universities. For this, we need a European Union that is willing to promote knowledge and innovation to empower our continent globally, and a European Union that is engaged openly and constructively on the world stage.

Where universities need Europe

In order to play these roles for the future of Europe, universities need the framework conditions that allow them to thrive. This requires that action is taken both at the national and European level. As networked, internationally minded institutions, universities across Europe want to work together. The European structures have been uniquely helpful in the past, and these must be strengthened in the future: the EU funding programmes, in particular Erasmus and the framework programmes for research and innovation, have provided unique possibilities for multilateral European cooperation. In the future, this type of funding with clear European added value should be increased.

The member states have an important role to play as well: universities need sustainable and sufficient investment at national level, with the EU member states living up to the goal of 3% of GDP invested in research and development.

Universities need academic freedom in order to continue being places of reflection and new ideas. The European institutions need to protect academic freedom as a key European value, and the member states must safeguard it in their policies. Universities also need autonomy over academic affairs in order to safeguard this academic freedom, and they need it to manage their staff, buildings and budgets to make strategic decisions for the long term. Regulatory frameworks in member states could well be reformed to accommodate this. The development of a European Research Area and a European Education Area that allows for deeper cooperation and sharing based on these values will be important assets for the future of Europe.

All these ideas, and more, have been spelled out by a united university sector in Europe in the vision for “Universities without walls”, where the contribution of open, engaged and autonomous universities for the future of Europe are articulated in detail.

View EUA's contribution directly on the Conference on the Future of Europe website.

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