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A new year brings new opportunities to address global challenges. EUA President Michael Murphy addresses university leaders and the crucial role of higher education in discovering solutions to urgent issues such as climate change and the need for sustainable development.

Another year has begun and predictions for the next decade rightly emphasise the challenges posed by climate change and the urgency of implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There has never been a time when strong universities were needed more – with our capacity to discover technological and social solutions, to train the workforce of the future and to shape the ethical and moral values of both our students and regional societies. This is a great responsibility, one that brings many opportunities.

The challenges to European society in 1920, a century ago, were no less daunting than they are today. Recovering from a continental war that killed some 40 million citizens and an influenza epidemic that had wiped out 5% of the world’s population in one year, Europe could hardly be seen to face a future more benign than today. Or in 1970, 50 years ago, when a Cold War posed an existential threat to humanity, were prospects brighter? 

With accumulating evidence that today’s young generation is not as confident as preceding ones, exhibiting unusually high levels of anxiety and foreboding, constantly barraged on social media with predictions of decline, it may be particularly important for universities in 2020 to contextualise today’s challenges in the continuum of history – both for our students and for society. The human species has always been challenged, there have always been existential threats. But, while the risks are great, today’s society is greatly advantaged over predecessors by our cumulative learning from all that history, by the unprecedented capabilities of our new technologies and by our extraordinary capacity to mobilise responses when the political will exists. In 2020, we, university leaders must provide the evidence, the hard facts of our ecological and environmental burden. Equally, it is also our cardinal duty to assert optimism, to face down the merchants of gloom, through leadership in public discourse while mobilising our immensely talented students, researchers and teachers, in coordinated and strategic support of the SDGs.

The New Year will, of course, provide the perennial challenges. Persuading governments and the EU to grow support for research – there is still time for university leaders to bend the ear of their prime minister (if in the EU) to be generous in the final long-term budget of the Union -; promoting parity of esteem for learning and teaching with research; implementing, in practice as well as theory, the policies to grow student and staff mobility. These must be our sector’s New Year resolutions.

The European University Association (EUA) must step up to the plate, too, in 2020, supporting university leaders in achieving maximum societal impact, with greater efficiency and consuming fewer resources. As the life of the university leader grows more and more challenging (there is occasional public recognition of the fact), EUA offers a wide network of peers, exchanging tribulations and solutions, seeking and giving support. The 2020 EUA Annual Conference in Gdansk (April 16-17) will be an important occasion with updates on Europe’s trajectory, the role of universities in shaping it, but equally importantly, the opportunity for university leaders to share their experiences with like-minded colleagues from across Europe. It will be an occasion to make 2020 the year of strong universities, ready to shape the solutions to our common challenges ahead.


Michael Murphy
European University Association

Michael Murphy is the European University Association President. He has served as President of University College Cork, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Chair of the Health Research Board of Ireland, and Chair of the Irish Universities Association. President Murphy has also served on the EUA Board and is Chair of the EUA Learning & Teaching Steering Committee.

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