Thursday, April 17, 2014
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European Universities’ Identity Crisis

MADRID – 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, 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 learning.

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 apart.

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 location.

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.

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  1. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    "Many prefer to focus on preparing their students for the world of work."

    That is a dangerous idea which destroys the essence of Humboldtian academia. The whole Bologna madness has to end and academic life be restored.

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