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Europe’s universities are transnational in outlook, international in their collaborative endeavours and work across borders. However, maintaining our strong universities requires ambitious investment and enabling policies, explains European University Association (EUA) President Michael Murphy.

Europe needs a strong knowledge base and effective and efficient knowledge exploitation to meet the many challenges our continent faces, not least climate change, resource depletion, migration and the impact of digital transformation on the way we work and live.

Universities play a dominant role in education, a major role in knowledge creation and a significant role in knowledge exploitation or innovation – the three sides of the “knowledge triangle”.

A coherent, integrated public policy approach to research, education and innovation enables and supports universities to be more efficient, with greater impact.

The best university education is research informed while strategic education fertilises creativity and innovation.

Universities by their nature are transnational in outlook, international in their collaborative endeavours and work across borders collectively to harness the entire creative capacity of our continent.

How do we connect the knowledge triangle in concrete terms?

The announcement of one European Commissioner tasked with connecting the knowledge triangle of research, education and innovation is itself a concrete step. It shows recognition of the strength, importance and interconnectedness of the three elements.

But we need a strong European Research Area exhibiting coherent research policies, complementary strategic investments by the Commission and member states, with a free flow of researchers and new knowledge across the continent.

We celebrate that the European Union also aims to establish a European Education Area by 2025, with the ambition to make Europe’s education systems work better together, with more mobility for learners and staff and closer cooperation between education institutions.

However, in an ideal world, these two initiatives would be subsumed in one grand integrated project.

Given that universities play such a seminal role in the delivery of both education and research it is self-evident that the policy frameworks and the operational practices underpinning both domains should operate under one common governance framework.

If precluded by Treaty limitations then the default position in their design should be uniformity, coherence and simplicity wherever possible and the European Parliament should test all proposals against these criteria.

Do you see a link between these visions and the larger vision of the EU?

Of course. Education, research and innovation are enablers of every single goal embraced by the EU on the Commission’s website.

Excellence in all three missions is a crucial enabler for the Union’s policy priorities - from leading the ecological transition through new technologies and strengthening European technological sovereignty, to fostering sustainable development and making people and societies fit for the digital age.

Europe will only be as strong as its universities. Universities clearly have a key role in advancing knowledge, empowering people through skills and critical thinking, and through their work with partners in society, policymaking and the economy.

Universities foster social inclusion, regional development and social and technological innovation. They also promote values such as openness, tolerance and international collaboration, which are all central to the European project.

However, strong universities in the future will require ambitious investments and enabling policies at both European and national levels, at least commensurate with those enjoyed by competitors around the world.

Are there areas where Europe has an advantage?

Europe is without doubt a global leader in transnational research collaboration and in inter-university cooperation in education.

The Erasmus+ programme and Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation funding programmes, are envied around the world.

The Bologna Process is an exemplar in promoting common high-quality standards across national boundaries, in enabling transnational qualifications recognition and facilitating student mobility. ASEAN, Latin American and African regions are currently endeavouring to emulate us.

But we have another crucial advantage deriving from our value system; we embrace excellence, not elitism.

Europe enjoys “distributed excellence” in research, education and innovation; high performing institutions can be found in most parts of Europe and we display continent wide commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. The consequence is a fairer more equitable society.

Is funding where you see risks or downsides?

Yes, insufficient investment is a major challenge. We are failing to live up to commitments made repeatedly over the past 20 years at both EU and member state level.

Most worrying is our failure to match the levels of investment being made in other world regions and countries. The current EU research programmes are underfunded.

More than three quarters of excellent project proposals are denied support and most worrying, the costs of developing these proposals are enormous; denial of funding results in wasted effort and enormous inefficiencies.

To stand still, making no dent in the gap between us and our competitors, we cannot afford to invest less than €120bn in the upcoming Horizon Europe programme. Anything less is a statement of disinterest in the future of Europe’s young people.

Would you describe threats to academic freedom as another risk?

Certainly. If you had asked me ten years ago, I would not have imagined myself saying this. But, in recent years academic freedom has come under pressure in parts of Europe, to the point that a university has been forced out of an EU member state.

This is a serious contravention of European values, set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Research and teaching must be free from political interference; societies that encourage their universities “to hold a mirror up to power” derive strength from that wisdom.


This article was originally published by The Parliament Magazine on 30 January 2020.


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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