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Papers presented at the Symposium on
5 December 1996, Santiago, Chile

(held in conjunction with the 43rd Session of the Council of the United Nations University)


J. A. van Ginkel
Rector Magnificus, Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I could not agree more with the conclusions of Professor Ingrid Moses. Outside, you will find a copy of "University 2050: Organization of Innovation and Creativity," an article published in IAU’s (International Association of Universities) journal on Higher Education Policy. My contribution this afternoon will be based largely on ideas I developed in that article. In her last paragraph, Professor Moses already gave her perspective on how the future of universities might look. I might disappoint you in the next twenty minutes, because in different words, I will say the same. But, I will keep it short and, as requested, European.

My topic is the "Future of Universities: From a European Perspective." When I tried to prepare myself, I saw all at once a very big building in the centre of Utrecht. This building is the main office of the Coal Trade’s Association (the SHV, the Steenkolen Handels Vereniging). Of course, coal trade was very important in the Netherlands in the past when the heating of homes was still supplied by coal. But since the early sixties, since we use natural gas, the Coal Trade’s Association has had to look for other types of trade. And it did that, successfully. In many countries, the MAKRO, their chain of huge supermarkets, has become a big name. But, whenever you look at that building, it seems to be nearly empty - not much is happening. It is the main office of one of the biggest enterprises of the Netherlands: a true transnational. The director recently gave a talk at a major occasion to the Utrecht students about the future of higher education as he saw it. He tried to warn the students. He said, "you know, at the moment, my enterprise has many establishments throughout the world, even in China. Therefore, in whatever I do, I have to keep the world in my mind. When I look for personnel, I look to the world market. When I go to other countries [he wanted to warn Dutch students], I can find eager young people who have more knowledge than you for half the price or even less, and they are also prepared to work twice as hard. So, if you do not work hard and even harder, there will be no place for you in my organization." And indeed, 90 percent of his personnel are non-Dutch. That also explains why the building is always so empty. It is still the main office, the main location. It is a good example for a growing number of companies nowadays. The director probably lives in Switzerland, Monaco or in the Caribbean. His trade is diffused worldwide. Such a company has no important links with any government or region; it is "footloose" and can, therefore, relocate easily, almost at any moment. Only once did I see the SHV building full of life. That was when the association celebrated its 100th anniversary, and employees and guests from all around the world were invited. A proud moment in Utrecht’s recent history.

Heterogeneity is another topic not many people are really thinking of. But I had to when I was asked to look at higher education from a European perspective. I first asked myself, "Does a European perspective really exist?" On the one hand, it can be argued that "there is too much heterogeneity, you cannot speak about a European perspective." Well, probably, the heterogeneity of Europe is not as huge as in the Asia/Pacific region. But I can assure you that the heterogeneity in higher education in Europe is enormous. In general terms, it can be almost stated as a kind of geographical "law" that the higher the density of the population, the greater the variety over short distances. That means that in Europe there also must be a lot of variety.

On the other hand, of course, it can be argued that the whole university system today is so interlinked that you cannot differentiate anymore between a European and another perspective on higher education. And I heard several examples of this in the other contributions to this seminar. For example, when Professor Ekong said, "In Africa there is such a strong relation between universities and development," I was thinking to myself, "How is it in my country?" Of course, we tried to retain the classical university. But if universities are not going to change in the near future, it will be questionable whether there will be universities at all in the future. I, therefore, called University 2050, the "organization of innovation and creativity." Certainly, societies will organize the development of innovation and creativity in one way or the other. But the way in which they will do so can be very different. If universities do not adapt to the changed environment, other structures will develop to fulfill their role instead. The rapid development of non-university higher education in many countries illustrates this point quite well.

So, addressing this topic, because of the short time left to me at the end of a long list of speakers, I would just like to do two things. First, look at the European context and second, go on with the future of universities in general, certainly in Europe, but also beyond Europe in the rest of the world.

Looking at the European context, one must admit that there is a certain tendency in Europe to look at itself as the old continent: a place where people from different continents will come to see the achievements of the past, to learn about its rich history, a museum - but not a thriving future-oriented place working on an even greater future. It is against this background that the Delors white paper of 1994 on higher education and the labour market, on the learning society, is to be understood. Of course, the countries working together in the European Union still generate 20 percent of world trade. But this overall percentage is diminishing continuously; our part in the world trade increases only in agricultural products and railways. But at the same time, the percentage is weakening on markets with a high added value, like office automation, informatics, electronics, optics, medical equipment and so on. The growth in labour productivity has been lower than in the United States of America by 10 percent and far lower than in Japan by 40 percent. At the same time, the investments in R&D have been considerably lower than in Japan or the United States of America. The European Union invests only about 2 percent of the gross national product in R&D, whereas Japan and the United States of America, invest 3 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively. Often, the growth in productivity is also related with the number of researchers and engineers in the labour force. And then you see that in every 8,000 in the labour force, the European Union has four researchers and engineers, the United States of America has eight, and Japan even nine.

Lack of coordination in the research policy between the respective countries themselves, as well as between the individual countries and the European Union as a whole, and in particular the weakness in the commercialization of the results of research, are increasingly held responsible for the developments just described. And, of course, do the politicians then talk less about the multitude of laws for strengthening economic development or about the lack of common strategies. They indeed do not pose the question whether all these laws really strengthen or rather weaken the economy? They focus instead on the lack of venture capital and of a fruitful cooperation between universities and industries. The present Commissioner of the European Union for Education, Training and Youth and for Science, Research and Development, Madame Edith Cresson, particularly criticizes the low output in terms of protected licenses and patents of all the excellent research done in Europe. The European Union, therefore, tries increasingly to influence the course of European university research in its successive framework programmes. This strategy has become more and more apparent. These programmes primarily try to focus university research in order to strengthen Europe’s economic strength and competitiveness. Only very slowly do these programmes also try to strengthen social and environmental studies. And not only is the European Union trying to focus research capacity into so-called more useful or relevant directions and to strengthen development therefore. Almost every country is establishing or has already for some time a foresight committee to look into the future direction(s) of scientific research and, more importantly, the investments therein. There is also a European Science and Technology Assembly, and most countries are actively promoting a science and research policy. All of these efforts have as their main aim to steer research and not just do research. By steering research, the goal is also to steer the main directions of scientific development and of the educational programmes in universities.

Now, how strong is the position of universities under such circumstances? Do they have a common stance? One must admit that the universities in Europe are as diverse as they are all round the world. Some countries have developed a strong binary system. There are other countries that abolished the binary system, like England. Those countries with a binary system, like Germany and the Netherlands, maintain a strong separation between universities and non-university institutions of higher education. Other countries, like Spain, Portugal and Italy, are characterized by a strong differentiation of programmes within the universities. In fact, they implement very different types of study programmes, university and non-university, combined in the same institutions.

The research function of universities also varies importantly from country to country. There are countries where the research funding primarily goes directly to the universities, like the Netherlands or Sweden. But there are other countries where research is done mainly at specific institutes, like in France at the CNRS institutes, or in Germany at the Max-Planck institutes and the Frauenhofer institutes. And I won’t even mention the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, where most of the research is still being done in academy institutes, and where a small city, like Szeged, still has about ten different "universities": one for veterinarian medicine, one for medicine, one for law, one for economics, one for theology, etc. When you come in the main office of the ancient "true" university - it is a nice old building - you have to go to the third floor and to the left to find the office of the Rector of the university, whereas to the right on the same floor is the Rector of the medical university. How to compare this with Oxford or the Sorbonne? Or with La Sapienza in Rome with its 200,000 students? So, there are a lot of differences. That also means that universities as a whole have difficulty in defining their own strategies towards the future in an area with such diverse social interest. Nevertheless, when you look at what is going on, it is highly important and opportune that universities try to develop their own general policies and try to develop themselves along the same lines and defend their position well.

A common position and strategy does not exist yet. Therefore, to formulate such a position and strategy for the future, before concluding, I would just like to give you the five points that play a major role at the moment in the European debate. But I am convinced these are equally important for universities in other continents.

First, the future of universities will depend very much on the outcome of the debate on how much higher education overall and Humboldtian research university education, in particular, a society really needs? There is a major political party in my country stating time and again in and outside the Parliament that 50 years ago, only 3 percent of an age-cohort was studying in universities; these were the bright people. At the moment, there are more than 30 percent and that is often interpreted to mean a tremendous loss of quality! Not an "elite" higher education anymore in the sense of only for the brightest young people, but a mass higher education. Of course, this is largely only rhetoric and politics - from 3 to more than 30 percent also reflects a more important participation from lower social economic classes, the participation of women, young people from more peripheral regions, and so on.

Second, there is the debate about who really profits from higher or tertiary education and, therefore, who has to pay for it? The society? The state? Or the individual involved? Until now in Western Europe, it was quite normal that there was a major financial contribution from the state and often a strong regulatory role. In fact, all higher education was supplied or at least financed by the state. But more and more, we find the same type of development we heard from Donald Ekong. And probably, there should be more private provisions for higher education. When you look at all these things, there come questions like student loans, accessibility, all the topics you have heard about already. We can discuss them later on.

Third, there is the question to what degree universities should be autonomous. If you have major programmes in universities that are strictly job-oriented, do they have to be autonomous in the same way as in the Humboldtian research university? This is a question that keeps coming up strongly in my country, but you hear it in many countries, too. When you do not have a properly selected group of about 10 percent of the most talented of an age-cohort studying at a Humboldtian research university, for whom it is absolutely necessary to have this type of autonomy and research linked to education, do you have then to create the same conditions for all the others who are 18 years of age and over who are still studying? One has to be very careful here. Even if the Government is prepared to give increasing autonomy, it comes generally at a cost. In most cases, the governments give more autonomy when they mean to pay less and not only governments follow this rule! And that means then that the universities have to find other sources of income. Overall income can become so low that the autonomy does not mean much anymore. At a certain stage, the question will circle around "How much legitimization does the state still have to draw up all kinds of regulations with regard to higher education when it pays only a small part of the real cost?"

The fourth topic I would like to raise is the density of higher educational institutions in Europe, quite the opposite of what happens in the South Pacific. It gave, in fact, ample opportunities to make use of strategies like division of tasks, networking, back to the core business, strategic alliances, outsourcing, etc. It can, in fact, mean the creation of a completely different system of higher education than the one that exists. At the moment, many of the bigger institutions still try to do all the different activities that are related with higher education and scientific research. But, indeed, gradually other solutions are being explored, solutions that are based on networks of institutions with a clear identity and a high profile.

The last point, which most probably is more typically European, is that much of the future of the universities will depend on the change in the relative positions of regions, countries, and the European Union, and the responsibility for higher education and scientific research, including quality assessment. We have the idea that much of higher education will still be organized on the national level. Nevertheless, the European Union plays an increasingly important role. But in countries like Germany, education and culture are still the realm of the "Länder," the individual states that together constitute the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. So, higher education there is not organized on the level of the national state. As a consequence, the European Union would like to harmonize and integrate the higher education sector of at least the countries of the European Union. It is not likely that the German Länder will accept from Brussels what they do not accept from Bonn or soon Berlin. This will mean that the level on which the universities will be organized in Europe will be quite different in the different countries. Nevertheless, I still believe that in the future, all the national systems will dissolve and that after some time a highly unregulated European system will emerge. Probably not so different from the variety we see in the US and which could develop in the rest of the world. As a consequence, the quality of teaching and research in the distant future will again be linked very much to the individual institution, just like it was in the Middle Ages.

Thank you very much.

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