Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Opinion

Innovation can keep EU universities ahead of the pack

  • Europe produces around 30 percent of the world's scientific publications (Photo: Pixabay)

When we picture the vectors for new European ambition, we see universities and higher education communities as the right vector to be focusing at.

They support European prosperity and values, and are in charge of teaching and training the next generation of future talents.

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Universities are the focal point of education, research and innovation – what is known as the triangle of knowledge. To the knowledge-based economy, they are what plants and factories were to the industrial economy. So in a nutshell, the triangle of knowledge has to be the centrepiece in Europe's future.

Europe's share of the global GDP has been shrinking for a while. The OECD estimates that global growth will be driven increasingly by innovation and skill investment. At the same time, production will shift from energy-intensive physical assets to intangible assets.

We could benefit from that – if we are prepared to be a change leader rather than merely reacting to it.

Europe is a scientific powerhouse with 1.8 million researchers working in thousands of universities, research centres and world-leading manufacturing industries.

Only seven percent of the worlds' population lives in Europe holding a quarter of the global GDP and yet Europe produces around 30 percent of the world's scientific publications.

This is more than an impressive starting point. The recently published Lamy Report pointed out that EU investment within research and innovation fosters international collaboration and competition of a scale, scope and speed that no single country in the world can match.

Therefore, as we look toward a post-Brexit EU budget, we need to keep on prioritising research and innovation.

But addressing the EU's growth deficit cannot be done solely by investing heavily in research and innovation.

A structural shift in our politics is needed: and the key is to break down silos. Today, research and higher education issues are often treated separately.

This is not least the case within the EU decision-making and institutional process. In both the French and Danish government, the same ministry is in charge of higher education, research and innovation offering a global view to seek coherence in policy-making among the three.

We will not reach the appropriate level of competitiveness and create jobs without innovation; there is no innovation without research; and conversely there is no research and innovation without people with the right knowledge, skills and competences.

The Union programmes to follow Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ must break down silos and foster the needed link between higher education and research around shared objectives: providing high quality, research-based education and teaching that equip graduates with personal and professional strength to act and innovate, and allow our societies to remain sustainable.

Solutions to many of the major challenges that we face now and in the upcoming decades will come from science and research. Climate change, scarcity of natural resources, providing medical treatment to an ageing European population, automatisation of production and the provision of services, to name but a few of these.

The next Erasmus generation

The proliferation of digital news outlets, blogs, social media along with the general polarisation of public debate entails a risk.

Facts, analysis and reflections are too often sidelined by confrontational and ill-founded outbursts. The antidote lies in science and education. Or, to use the terminology of the French philosophers in the days of European enlightenment, the role of education lies in shaping individuals into contributors to the social good.

To this end, the Erasmus programme has allowed generations of young Europeans to study in other EU member states. In order to strengthen their academic skills, become multilingual, learn other ways to deal with an academic subject and experience life and another culture.

We must take advantage of this success. The next generation of the Erasmus programme should focus on mobility and quality: we want to see many students and other young people, especially apprentices, going abroad with Erasmus, universities in different countries developing joint curricula, and we want our students to come back stronger with a strengthened European perspective.

Language contains the roots of a nation's culture. Fully understanding each other's culture requires the ability to speak each other's language.

Young people must therefore be given the opportunity to explore Europe and learn at least two foreign languages – to discover and understand our shared history, culture, values and future in Europe. We are interdependent nations; this is our strength at a global level.

We need to develop new ways to adapt to the evolving behaviours and expectations of the digital native students.

It means using all the possibilities the European Credit and Transfer (ECTS) credit system provides for allowing shorter and more flexible curricula, during the whole life, rethinking the role and importance of students' geographical, but also course-specific, mobility and providing students with new skills to seize or create new economic opportunities.

If we want to achieve these goals, one of the key issues of course lies in how institutions and individuals, namely teachers, are incentivised to take risk and innovate.

Teaching and learning must be based more on education research and should include a problem-based or project-based approach to reinforce students' self-reliance in learning.

We have to continue this shift towards new pedagogical scenarios. When excellent research lends itself to the education of students, it fosters innovation.

One of the best ways to disseminate science and research throughout the society is to do so through the professional achievements of graduates taking their knowledge into society to build start-ups or translate the newest research into better ways of producing, manufacturing or developing within the market and society.

This leads us to our last and broader thought. Both at a national level and within the EU, we need to start dealing with higher education and research as two sides of the same coin.

Universities at a crossroad

Excellent research is based on exceptional education, and exceptional education is based on excellent research.

European universities are at a crossroad, and we are currently living in a specific, if not historical, period with a strong need, all across the European Higher Education Area, for pedagogical and organisational transformation.

President Macron has put forward the idea to create 'European universities', strong alliances between four to six universities, delivering common diplomas and leading together joint research and innovation projects.

This initiative contributes to answering Europe's need to develop an integrated policy for research-higher education-innovation, in order to support knowledge as a shared good that Europe and its people can benefit and prosper from.

We, France and Denmark, urge our fellow member states to join us in this call for Europe's strong position in the future global economy through research, innovation and higher education.

Soren Pind is Danish minister for higher education and science, Frederique Vidal is French minister of higher education, research and innovation

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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