Reviving Europe’s Universities

COPENHAGEN -- Writing at home sometime ago, with Wimbledon on TV in the background, it occurred to me that just as Britain hosts the world’s top tennis tournament but never wins it, so we Europeans are in a similar situation with education.

The world’s first university was Plato’s Academy in Athens, venerable old universities are scattered across Europe from Coimbra to Cambridge to Copenhagen, and the modern university, uniting research and education, was pioneered by Wilhelm von Humboldt in Berlin. Yet today, universities in the United States easily outperform their European counterparts.

Less than 2% of the European Union’s GDP is devoted to research, compared to 2.5% in the US and 3% in Japan. Spending per student on tertiary education is just over $9,000 in France, slightly under $11,000 in Germany, and almost $12,000 in the UK. Some EU countries, such as Denmark, do better, but still lag far behind the US, which spends more than $25,000.

Measuring the quality of output is difficult, although The Times Higher Education Supplement attempts to do so every year. Only three European universities – Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College in London – made it into the top ten in the most recent list; all the rest were American. Only ten universities from the entire EU have ever made it into the top 50. Germany’s top university, Heidelberg, ranks 58th.