Universities: Renaissance or Decay?

“Europe’s universities, taken as a group, are failing to provide the intellectual and creative energy that is required to improve the continent’s poor economic performance.” This dramatic statement introduces a new pamphlet whose subtitle, “Renaissance or Decay,” I have borrowed for this reflection.

The pamphlet’s two authors, Richard Lambert, a former editor of the Financial Times and future Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, and Nick Butler, the Group Vice President for Strategy and Policy Development at British Petroleum do not represent vested academic interests. What they say about Europe probably applies to most other parts of the world as well, though not to the United States.

Lambert and Butler identify four main weaknesses of European universities that must be addressed. They call for:

  • greater diversity in place of today’s conformity;
  • incentives for universities to succeed, which implies the need to set their ambitions higher;
  • less bureaucracy and more freedom and accountability;
  • above all, more adequate funding to bring European universities close to the US level of 2.6% of GDP, from less than half on average.

Not everyone will consider the underlying assumption of this analysis compelling. Why is this attention to universities necessary? Because, it is said, we now live in a “knowledge society.” Perhaps. It is also a fact that a university education is the best guarantee for young people to find jobs in a globalized environment in which information is a key to success.

Yet it is by no means certain that education systems in which 50% or more of each generation strive to attain a university degree are best suited to cope with the exigencies of the twenty-first century. Many jobs are, in fact, not “high tech,” but, in the words of Britain’s Adair Turner, “high touch” service-sector jobs that do not require a university education. Even more jobs are somewhere between the two. Thus, a flexible system of varied educational institutions may be preferable to a system that leads one out of two students to an academic degree.

Were we to settle for, say, 25% of each generation on the academic track, universities in Europe, and indeed in many other parts of the world, would still have to overcome their unfortunate tendency to define their purposes against the business world. This tendency has been detrimental both for the business world, which is deprived of the cultural wealth provided by higher education, and for universities, because it removes them from their proper setting in the real world.

There is a strong case for more adequate funding of higher education, including student fees, which are still unpopular in many countries outside the US. But money is not all that is needed. One of the greatest comparative strengths of American universities lies in the nature of human relations. Teachers take their job seriously. They engage with students rather than eagerly awaiting breaks and holidays to pursue their own projects. They are true university teachers rather than people who invoke the “unity of teaching and research” in order to concentrate on research subjects and hope that teaching will take care of itself.

Moreover, the research atmosphere of American universities is characterized by a great deal of informal cooperation. People meet in laboratories and seminars, but also in common rooms and cafeterias. They are not obsessed with hierarchical status or surrounded by assistants.

Nor are they tied to narrow projects and the project groups formed around them. Despite fierce competition for academic tenure, for space in journals and in other media, and for advancement in general, people talk to each other as colleagues. This is what doctoral and postdoctoral students like when they go to American – and, to a lesser extent, British – universities. This is also what they miss even as they relapse into the bad old habits at home. As in so many other respects, universities not only in Europe, but also in Japan, South Korea, and developing parts of the world, including China and India, need to loosen rigid structures and habits to avoid decay and nurture a renaissance.