European Universities’ Identity Crisis

Read Time:3 Minute, 40 Second – Higher education in Europe today finds itself in a state of profound
uncertainty. What should universities’ primary focus be – research, professional
training, or social inclusion? Should governments invest more in higher education to
underpin long-term economic growth? Should universities be left alone to compete and
survive (or not) in a global education marketplace?

Amid the debates about their future role, Europe’s universities must not lose sight
of their individual identity, Víctor_: ” alt=”null” />their traditions, and their sense of social purpose.
This will not be easy. University administrators face pressures from above –
European institutions and national governments – and from their own researchers,
teachers, and students.

Moreover, the parameters of the debate are becoming hazy. On one hand, universities
are abiding by long-standing agreements with government; on the other, they face
zealous reformers who seek market-based solutions that stress competition among
institutions, encourage staff and student mobility, and emphasize student-centered

Obviously, these outlooks generate very different implications for universities’
future. Traditionally, universities undertook research, provided a professional
education, and offered a country’s young people a cultural foundation as they
entered society. Today, none of these aims appears secure. Indeed, the gravest
danger to Europe’s universities is a prolonged period of confusion about their
ultimate aims.

Seeking truth through observation, experimentation, rational argument, and mutual
criticism has always been a raison d’être of universities. Reflecting this, some
European institutions are encouraged by government to try to match the research
excellence attained by top universities in the United States.

But not all of Europe’s universities regard themselves primarily as research
institutions. Many prefer to focus on preparing their students for the world of
work. However, the skills that are now required outside academia are changing so
rapidly that universities may struggle to marry the generic cognitive skills taught
in the classroom – such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving,
and writing – with the professional expertise that is increasingly acquired in the
workplace. And if years of schooling do not translate into greater cognitive skills,
then much of the economic justification for investing in higher education falls

Universities have also had a public-service mission: to provide students with a
cultural foundation for life. This purpose may seem increasingly controversial in
pluralistic Western societies, but universities should at least provide their
students with an understanding of the models, history, and philosophical
fundamentals with which to debate these issues. Without a reasonable awareness of
their socio-cultural environment, students may view universities merely as a place
to pursue private goals, make useful connections, enjoy student life, and perhaps
pick up a superficial sense of diversity.

Whichever path Europe’s universities take, maintaining a distinct identity in the
face of global change and education reform will become increasingly difficult.
Researchers are no longer confined within their ivory towers, but work as part of
complex global networks alongside private-sector participants. Tenured professors,
once central to the life and image of a college, are being replaced by part-time
teachers who lack a strong connection to their institution.

Likewise, in the emerging conception of universities – one that draws heavily from
the corporate world – educational “managers,” applying “best practices” (and always
ready to move on to the next posting) – retain the most cursory regard for the
institution’s life and traditions. And students, seen as mere consumers of a
service, are invited to exercise choice regarding teachers, curricula, and

Some may find these changes exciting. But their purpose will be lost if pursuing
them weakens the very identity of Europe’s universities, many of which are used to
functioning in a world of state patronage and strict regulation. Policymakers must
be aware of the educational and cultural damage that continuous reforms – all
justified in the future-oriented jargon of the day – can wreak.

Universities must protect their institutional memories, local traditions, and
commitment to each new generation of students. A loyal and grateful alumni network
can help to ensure this. The alternative is a formulaic educational experience that
not only lacks individual character, but that is also devoid of moral purpose.

Víctor Pérez-Díaz, President of the ASP Research Center in Madrid and a member
of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the European Academy, is the
author of Markets and Civil Society and Europe and the Global Crisis: Economy,
Geostrategy, Civil Society, and Values.

source Project Syndicate, 2013.

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