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As we look forward towards a future of “Universities without walls”, this article by EUA President Michael Murphy points out that universities need better and coordinated communication of their worth, dialogue with power that is mutually respectful and clear evidence of a sector that is unified and mutually supportive.

Earlier this year, EUA published “Universities without walls – A vision for 2030” – distilled from more than 100 consultations with universities and societal stakeholders, European and global. This document shows a broad consensus on how universities must evolve in their various missions over the coming decade to build societal resilience – in Europe and beyond. The challenges are severe; the opportunities for universities are immense. We must change our education and learning paradigms, conduct, disseminate and apply research, innovate and engage with society. These elements are consistent in the analyses of all contributors to the vision. Many readers would make a similar analysis. Thus, we know what we must do. But can we translate the vision to a reality?

Of course we can – because we must. Europe will only be as strong as its universities. But to be strong, we must change. In particular, we must strive towards fostering professional and competent leadership in all universities, everywhere in Europe. In addition, we must reform the incentives driving academic careers so that all our colleagues embrace practices in tune with our vision for universities. These reforms are largely within our power.

However, universities must also be enabled by society, as they are dependent on society for support: we need regulatory frameworks that give us the autonomy to research, teach and manage our resources in order to reach our goals, while at the same time being appropriately accountable to society. Crucially, universities must have resources. Investment is necessary to ensure excellence in our missions. We must negotiate with policy makers and other stakeholders to ensure that we are enabled for universities’ mission in society.

In order to do this, we must be much better advocates than we are and have been. Regrettably, whether we are successful in our missions in the coming decade will be determined to a very high degree by our competence in convincing society to trust us and to invest in us. We will not be successful if we present society with a cacophony of competing claims for precedence and attention. We will only succeed in attracting the attention we need through united, coherent, evidence-based argumentation.

The message coming from universities must be holistic. It must convey positions that are common to all universities. At the same time, our policies and statements must also convey the rich diversity of our system: different types of institutions will require tailored support. “Universities without walls” celebrates the diversity among us as a strength of Europe - diversity within which all play different but crucial roles, each meriting and exhibiting respect. Our advocacy must embrace the needs of all chapels in the great cathedral – a European metaphor.

The growth in dialogue between associations in recent times, the growth in sharing tasks, in sharing platforms is so very welcome. Dialogue between university groupings, which agree on far more than what divides them, is a process we must accelerate if we are to make a necessary impact on powerholders - and society generally.

More than ever society relies on universities. We know what we must do and we must have a broad consensus on how to do it. Our biggest challenge is to persuade society to enable and not hinder us. Better and coordinated communication of our worth, dialogue with power that is mutually respectful and appropriately modest in tone, clear evidence of a sector that is unified and mutually supportive – this is the recipe for success. 

This article is drawn from a speech by Michael Murphy at the Meeting of the University Networks in Europe, Charles University, Prague, 24 September 2021.


Michael Murphy

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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