As reflected by the European Green Deal, the environmental revolution is likely the main challenge of the 21st century. And it is a great opportunity for Europe to take the lead. But, according to Karl Tombre from Université de Lorraine, this will need a truly comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach - where universities have a major role to play.
The major challenges of the 21st century create an urge to switch from climate-changing technologies and approaches to sustainable models. This environmental revolution, which includes the goal of reaching a carbon neutral society by 2050, is an urgent necessity - especially in view of the stern warnings about global warming, massive loss of biodiversity and an approaching major crisis in access to resources and energy. In the present world landscape, it is also a strong opportunity for Europe to take the lead again and to transform its industrial, economic and societal models. It is also a strong opportunity for Europe’s universities to take the frontrunner position, by boosting truly interdisciplinary approaches.
Europe was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. From a historical point of view, its higher education and research system was a major player in this revolution from its start, developing a very strong base of skills and scientific knowledge in the broad spectrum of engineering and technology. Although the leadership of the Digital Revolution has clearly been in the United States, the European economy has played along, and European higher education and research also have clear visibility in this field. However, we are probably far away from being able to claim global leadership.
This can change with the environmental revolution! It is a challenge that needs a Europe-wide approach, as no national model is strong enough to build this global leadership. The diversity of languages, cultures, managerial approaches, economic environments, political and regulatory frameworks that we have in Europe is a major asset, rather than a hindrance, for training truly European engineers, managers and leaders able to deliver to society. This includes a clear societal mission able to master non-technological issues, as well as technological ones. Indeed, many of the challenges raised by a carbon neutral society, with sustainable resource management of all the life cycle, circular economy approaches, or energy transition models, are as deeply societal as they are technological.
What place is better than Europe, the birthplace of humanism with key figures such as Erasmus, to see the emergence of such skills? And inside Europe, what place is better than its comprehensive universities, which are unique institutions with the necessary interdisciplinary approaches, both in research and in education? As the honest brokers in a world full of competition, they would clearly be precious players in connecting disciplines, connecting people, connecting economic, societal and political needs.
While our universities do certainly have many assets, they still need to work on their ability to foster interdisciplinary approaches. They need to be places widely open to dialogue between knowledge fields, where crossing disciplines, crossing curriculum tracks, crossing borders, would be easier than it is today. Curricula must be open to the great variety of profiles needed for the society and the economy of tomorrow. It must be natural to think of universities as connecting civil society, political decision makers, academia, and economic interests.
The university must of course remain a place with great academic freedom, not being a service centre for answering today’s economic needs, but rather a laboratory for imagining the solutions for tomorrow. This is absolutely fundamental and must be preserved. But universities can certainly take better advantage of having so many disciplines, so many specialties, to make it much easier to conduct interdisciplinary, challenge-driven research. They must insist on developing diplomas that reflect the broad scope of the many needed profiles – and not only diplomas in disciplines, but diplomas leading to T-shaped profiles, to a combination of “hard skills” and “soft skills”.
In our institutions, we should create incentives for academics and academic communities to not remain “classically” focused on their disciplines; this should include better recognition of interdisciplinary approaches in promotion processes. At the national level, some countries (including France) are still very rigid with respect to diplomas and disciplines; this must be loosened.
At the European level, the current trend needs to be amplified: We must move the Bologna Process forward and allow for the use of many more micro-credentials; we must foster mobility which is not limited to the same discipline, ultimately creating a student portfolio that can be filled with credits towards a diploma combining hard and soft skills, “deep” and “shallow” knowledge. In research, let us stop believing that the best way to include humanities in research and innovation policies is to have specific programs for humanities alone. The 21st century innovations will not consist solely in scaling up technology readiness levels. They will be as much about social, economic and human-centred questions – meaning we must include humanities in the overall plans for Horizon Europe and innovation policies.
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