European Universities’ Identity Crisis

Traditionally, universities undertook research, provided a professional education, and offered a country’s young people a cultural foundation as they entered society. Today, by contrast, the gravest danger to Europe’s universities is a prolonged period of confusion about their ultimate aims.

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.

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