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Document 52009AE1937

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a new partnership for the modernisation of universities: the EU Forum for University Business Dialogue’ COM(2009) 158 final

OJ C 255, 22.9.2010, p. 66–71 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)



Official Journal of the European Union

C 255/66

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a new partnership for the modernisation of universities: the EU Forum for University Business Dialogue’

COM(2009) 158 final

(2010/C 255/12)

Rapporteur: Mr BURNS

On 2 April 2009 the Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a new partnership for the modernisation of universities: the EU Forum for University Business Dialogue

COM(2009) 158 final.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 15 October 2009. The rapporteur was Mr Burns.

At its 458th plenary session, held on 16 and 17 December 2009 (meeting of 17 December 2009), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 60 votes to 12 with 11 abstentions.

1.   Recommendations

1.1   The EESC thinks using the word ‘university’ for all institutions of higher education regardless of their status and what they are called in the Member States is confusing. What is needed, rather, in promoting partnership between higher education institutions (HEIs) and businesses is clarity about what disciplines the partnership is suitable for, leaving it to the two sides to assess how mutually beneficial the partnership would be. For this reason, the EESC proposes using the term HEI as a catch-all expression and placing it in the forum’s title as a result.

1.2   The European Commission's Communication, like the EU University/HEI - Business Forum should concentrate on cooperation and action where it is appropriate and this should be assessed very carefully, especially during the present crisis, when it cannot be taken for granted that companies will be able to invest directly in graduates (over the longer term). The Forum must be used to formulate the long-term public interest regarding education and the evolution of the labour market.

1.3   Consultation of the social partners and civil society representatives is desirable here. The engagement with businesses and the creation of Forum has to be meaningful and not become a mechanism which has little value other than to raise more money for present university activities. This engagement and the creation of Forum must not become a means for business to ‘dominate’ HEIs.

1.4   The EESC would encourage a more equal partnership between universities and businesses where both are encouraged to become ‘drivers’ for change and both have valued contributions, recognise each other's different goals and social tasks and at the same time identify and use those subject-areas and points of contact which might give rise to cooperation (1).

1.5   Life Long learning - Empirical research needs to be done to clearly identify what tasks are done in businesses and the identified outcomes before the Forum develop any objectives concerning vocational education and training.

1.6   Business have to take responsibility in defining any outcomes in relation to what is done or needs to be done, in the workplace and bearing in mind the lifelong learning needs of workers.

1.7   Access to Life Long Learning programmes must not be limited to previous academic achievements or the attainment of specific qualifications. Life Long Learning must be based upon the practical needs of the employee and their workplace. All workplace training should be outcomes based. The attainment of qualifications should not be the main objective of Life Long Learning.

1.8   In business there is no substitute to practical experience. Forum should therefore include proposals on how academics can get valid hands on experience with both large and small businesses. A wealth of experience is available and examples of good practice should be studied.

1.9   SMEs and micro businesses should be encouraged to become more active in the Forum.

1.10   A more practical definition of SMEs has to be used for the work of the Forum. We would suggest:

Enterprise Category

Head count of Staff

Medium size






2.   Background overview

2.1   Education and training has been identified as a crucial factor in achieving the overall objectives of the Lisbon Strategy. For European society to survive and compete in the new global economy, citizens need to become more entrepreneurial. To achieve this objective the modernisation of European education systems has to be addressed and the role of universities and businesses have to be recognised as key drivers in that process.

2.2   Partnerships between large multinational companies and universities, research organisations and enterprises, already exist. The Joint Technology Initiatives, the European Technology Platforms, the Clusters of Excellence and the newly established European Institute for Innovation and Technology are good examples of new forms of collaboration and partnerships. Unfortunately similar relationships between HEIs and micro-enterprises and SMEs are not sufficiently developed.

2.3   New lines of research are needed to improve knowledge about the changing world of higher education, and the roles of academics. While universities are assigned a central role in building a European ‘knowledge society’, recent research has shown that as our expectations of universities increase, they face pressures that are hard to balance: they are expected to produce more research, to be competitive and cost efficient while teaching more students in a more personal way and upholding high academic standards. Thus their mission is blurred and the university risks losing its role in the generation and dissemination of knowledge (2).

2.4   The May 2006 Communication on modernising higher education (3) argued that business had a contribution to make in three areas:

Governance: business models could be imported to the university world;

Funding: enterprises have a potential role to play in the financial support of both education and research;

Curricula: students need to receive an education which will prepare them for the present and future world of work. Businesses must be involved in that process, and need to offer the kinds of placement which will help students make the transition from study to work. Enterprises must also be encouraged to release their staff for further learning and updating of their skills throughout their working lives.

2.5   In 2008 the Commission established a University-Business Forum which supports cooperation between universities and businesses with the objective of helping universities to respond better and faster to the demands of the market and to develop partnerships which harness scientific and technological knowledge.

2.6   The participants in the Forum were higher education institutions, companies, business associations, intermediaries and public authorities. It enabled discussions on the exchange of good practice, discussions on common problems and allowed the participants to work together on possible solutions.

3.   Gist of the Commission's proposal

3.1   The need for better cooperation between universities and businesses is recognised by the Commission. Measures are therefore required to support the Member States in their efforts to modernise their higher education systems.

3.2   The purpose of the present Communication is to:

Take stock of what has been learned from the first year of the Forum and other relevant activities at European level about the challenges and barriers to university-business cooperation. A Commission Staff Working Document develops this aspect of the work at greater length.

Make proposals for the next steps in the Forum’s work.

Outline concrete follow-up actions to strengthen university-business cooperation.

3.3   The main conclusions of the report which will influence the work of the Forum are:

The development of an entrepreneurial culture at universities requires profound changes in university governance and leadership.

Entrepreneurship education has to be comprehensive and open to all interested students, in all academic disciplines.

Universities should involve entrepreneurs and business people into the teaching of entrepreneurship.

Professors and teachers should have access to training in teaching entrepreneurship and exposure to the business world.

Universities and public research organisations should have clear long-term strategies for the management of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

Particular challenges faced by SMEs that want to enter into partnerships with universities need to be addressed.

Lifelong Learning (LLL) is to be fully integrated into the missions and strategies of universities.

The updating/upgrading of skills has to be valued and recognised on the labour market and by employers.

LLL has to be developed in partnership with enterprises – universities cannot design and deliver alone.

National and regional framework conditions have to provide a supportive environment for universities to engage in cooperation with business.

University-business cooperation has to be embedded in institutional strategies; leadership and effective management of human resources are crucial for the implementation.

3.4   To facilitate debate on the objectives above, the Commission's plans to give the EU Forum for University-Business Dialogue a reinforced structure of plenary meetings and thematic seminars. A web presence is recommended. It will also aim to encourage involvement of national and regional authorities and contributors from outside the EU.

3.5   Based on the findings of the Forum, the Commission plans to explore new forms of structured partnerships between universities and businesses, especially SMEs, and look at how these partnerships could be supported through EU programmes. The Commission will also investigate whether the scope of dialogue with businesses could be extended to other sectors of education and training.

4.   EESC general comments/observations

4.1   The EESC welcomes the European Commission's endeavours to improve relations between HEIs and business. We are however, concerned that the content of the Communication does little more than confirm criticism that has been detailed in previous documents while coming to the same conclusions ‘we have a problem and something has to be done about it’. Nevertheless, the Committee is concerned that where the Commission's Communication proposes certain measures to improve cooperation between higher education institutions and businesses, it does so through a unilateral approach, for example, ‘universities should adopt the management structures of businesses, facilitate the direct involvement of practitioners within them and introduce training in entrepreneurship etc.’ (see point 3.3).

4.2   The EESC is concerned that the Communication has too academic an approach and the recommendations are too vague and open to interpretation. The use of ‘universities’ to mean all higher education institutions, irrespective of their name and status in the Member States is confusing. Different higher education institutions offer different services to business. Institutions that specialise in competence-based training, are therefore offering different products than those institutions that focus on knowledge-based courses. For example, the main function of traditional universities, where the humanities, social sciences and basic research are dominant, is to produce knowledge and maintain cultural continuity.

4.3   Most employers understand the traditional split between universities and other forms of further education. They expect universities to educate students so that they graduate with a deep understanding of their subject. They see degrees as more an indication of potential rather than an attestation of competence whereas they expect higher education qualifications and vocational qualifications to indicate competence in performing tasks. This Communication and the supporting Commission Staff Working Document does not help in clarifying any of these issues.

4.4   The EESC is aware of the problems in the so called corporatisation of universities. We believe that transferring educational processes and procedures from the USA and dropping them into Europe will not work. European universities have to find a new way of engaging with businesses and improving the services, qualifications and outcomes that they offer, without this damaging their capacity to carry out basic research, which is vital in helping the EU to survive global competition.

4.5   In today's economic climate, all of Europe's HEIs have to become more ‘customer focused’ and more aware of their cost/benefit to society. To help HEIs in this new role, the university business Forum should become ideal partners. However, the term ‘customer’ has to be defined from the point of view of the public interest, employers and the individual student.

4.6   These changes in priorities will have financial implications for universities. The extent to which the market should determine academic priorities is a crucial factor that has to be carefully considered. Exclusive focus on competitiveness and business orientation as absolute standards, among others, could imply the narrowing down curricula and research fields. This trend is illustrated in the decline of the classical disciplines which is observed on a global scale. This process (4) is not confined to the humanities but is also occurring in the classical science disciplines of chemistry, physics and mathematics as well as in economics and the other social sciences.

4.7   In the Communication the Commission states that the main goal of any recommendations is to make European universities ‘crucial drivers of Europe's ambition to be the world’s leading knowledge-based economy and society’. While this may appear a very laudable aim, there is concern that universities alone have been identified as the ‘drivers’. The EESC would prefer to see an equal partnership between businesses and the universities, where both recognise their own strengths and weaknesses and where both are equal drivers for change. The businesses providing the practical experience and knowledge of the marketplace and the universities providing intellectual content and support. The EESC points out, however, that a series of other factors go to make up the ‘driver’ behind Europe's endeavours, not just business and HEIs. These endeavours must be seen in the context of a whole raft of EU and Member State policies and especially against the backdrop of society's support for education and addressing unemployment.

4.8   The EESC recognises the need to match what is taught with employability and the references in the working document to ‘outcomes’ (5.2/5.2.3/5.5.5), but still thinks that this cannot be the only role of universities. We are, however, concerned as to how these outcomes will be defined, who will define these outcomes and how vocational education and training and vocational qualifications will fit into any final matrix of university training and qualifications and vocational training and qualifications. We believe that the definitions of these outcomes are crucial to matching training qualifications and the needs of employers especially in relation to SMEs and micro-businesses, but would point out that in view of the length of time needed for training and the evolving nature of Europe's non-harmonised labour markets, it will be difficult to achieve a match between training and jobs in business. For business-related subjects, universities must equip students and graduates with the requisite theoretical knowledge to meet the current challenges of the changing world of business.

4.9   Life Long Learning (LLL) is important for businesses and citizens but the Communication does not address the problem of equality of access. This is a serious problem especially in relation to those citizens who have not had a university education. It is clear that without specific recommendations, those who already have a university degree will receive more help and training, while those who have not had university education will fail to engage with universities or any university based LLL programmes.

4.10   Within the proposals, there appears to be an assumption that the Commission will be able to specify areas of skills shortage by just meetings with employers and academics. It seems ironic that while pushing for more scientific research there is an avoidance of recommending any application of any scientific techniques to establish exactly where the skills gaps lie and to aid the design of the education and training to be delivered in order to close these gaps. By setting up institutions (for example, associations) at higher education institutions together with large companies, it is possible to identify which qualifications graduates need in practice, and to make sure that they meet requirements in the economy better. These institutions can also play a supportive role in finding jobs for graduates with companies.

4.11   This lack of evidence is particularly important in relation to LLL. Empirical research should take place to clearly identify - what tasks are done in businesses, and what tasks need to be done. Once these have been identified, training and any subsequent qualifications should be targeted to meet the identified outcomes. Owing to the practical aspect of defining these business outcomes it is essential that businesses play their part in the development process and define these objectives. Informing the relevant parties will be crucial here. For example, if it is known that there is strong demand for labour in a particular sector, such as the maritime professions, potential ‘students’ should be informed which universities (national or European) provide training in this area, where occupations are very diverse and, in some cases, highly qualified.

4.12   The Commission Communication (point 2) states: ‘University-business cooperation involves two communities with marked differences in culture, values and missions’. It then goes on to detail how partnerships have been built between the two domains and then admits that ‘the level of cooperation remains very unequal across countries, universities and academic disciplines. Furthermore, the extent to which such cooperation has influenced governance or organisational cultures in the two sectors concerned is limited. Few universities have an institution-wide strategy for cooperation with enterprise; those that do are concentrated in a small number of Member States’.

4.13   This statement encapsulates one of the main problems of university-business relationships i.e. many old style universities make little or no attempt to understand the culture, values and motivation of business and believe that any change in understanding has to be done by the businesses and not by the universities. True cooperation needs business representatives to take account of the specific function of universities and their different responsibilities towards society, as well as of the fact that the benefits that HEI contribute to businesses are achieved above all through indirect channels. Until this problem is solved any recommendations on university-business cooperation are likely to have only little value.

4.14   This statement also highlights a problem in that; present cooperation is presently based upon universities working with large, often multinational, businesses with proven social and economic track records. This begs the question: - what hope do SMEs and micro-businesses have in influencing universities if big companies have historically had so little influence? This problem is alluded to in point 3.3: ‘Particular challenges faced by SMEs that want to enter into partnerships with universities need to be addressed’. There are, however, no practical suggestions to what the challenges and solutions may be.

4.15   Throughout the document there is no clear definition of SMEs. The term is mentioned nine times in the Communication, ten times in the impact assessment and 76 times in the Staff Working Document but the general impression, in the Commission documents - is that the definition is not about small businesses but rather those businesses employing over 200 and have a turnover in excess of € 10 million. The present SME definition used by the European Commission is:

Enterprise Category

Head count of Staff

Annual Turnover


Annual balance sheet total

Medium size


€50 million


€43 million



€10 million


€10 million



€2 million


€2 million

This definition is not helpful to HEIs or the Forum when trying to identify SME businesses especially if they use the annual turnover figures. It is our opinion that using the present definitions of SMEs is a hindrance in identifying business partners. A more simple definition of SMEs that reflects reality would therefore be desirable.

4.16   The reference to ‘fostering entrepreneurship’ throughout the whole education system must be analysed in depth and illustrated with specific examples, our concern being that the Forum may not be the appropriate place to discuss this very wide ranging issue. The needs for children to develop their creativity and other prerequisites for their future jobs and the needs for adults to be entrepreneurial in work (in regard, for example, to Life Long Learning) are two different issues.

4.17   There is concern from businesses that ‘Entrepreneurism’ has becoming a new higher educational bandwagon. Universities do have a role in promoting and developing a more entrepreneurial attitude but lately, this has been extended to include training people to become Entrepreneurs. The world Economic Forum (Educating the next wave of Entrepreneurs April 2009) quotes – ‘Most of what you hear about entrepreneurship is all wrong. It’s not Magic; it’s not mysterious; and it has nothing to do with genes. It’s a discipline and like any discipline, it can be learned’. We believe that this latest shift by some Universities is fundamentally flawed. Universities can teach people how to perform business tasks such as accountancy, marketing and how to perform management procedures but no one, not even professors in universities, can teach people how to evaluate and take financial and personal risks that all too often defy any logical rational.

4.18   The EESC draws attention to its opinion ‘Partnerships between education establishments and employers (5), which also sets out a series of initiatives on this matter.

5.   Comments on the Staff Working Document

5.1   The EESC is concerned that the working document referred to in the Communication (point 2) adds little to what was said in the main Communication. If anything, the working document adds confusion by making assumptions with little or no proof to support the conclusions.

5.2   The working document is clearly written from the universities’ perspective on what universities can do to gain from engagement with businesses. This does concern us as it does not offer a balanced view of what the Forum should be doing. The delineation between universities, further education institutions and other training bodies is also extremely vague and it is not clear whether it is suggesting that all universities should become training institutions or whether all training bodies should become universities.

5.3   The EESC believes that the working document is a lost opportunity and does not offer the broader business perspectives or raise the specific problems of SMEs.

Brussels, 17 December 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI

(1)  See EESC opinions on ‘Universities for Europe’, rapporteur: Joost van Iersel (OJ C 128, 18.5.2010, p. 48) and on ‘Cooperation and transfer of knowledge between research organisations, industry and SMEs – an important prerequisite for innovation’, rapporteur: Gerd Wolf (OJ C 218 of 11.9.2009).

(2)  European Science Foundation (ESF). 2008. Higher Education Looking Forward: An Agenda for Future Research by John Brennan, Jürgen Enders, Christine Musselin, Ulrich Teichler and Jussi Välimaa.

(3)  Communication of 10.5.2006 from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament ‘Delivering on the Modernisation Agenda for Universities: Education, Research and Innovation’ COM(2006) 208 final

(4)  Wilshire, Bruce. 1990. The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity and Alienation, Albany: State University of New York Press; Readings, Bill. 1996. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

(5)  EESC Opinion adopted on 24 March 2009, rapporteur: Mr MALOSSE (OJ C 228, 22.9.2009)


to the


of the European Economic and Social Committee

The following amendment, which received at least a quarter of the votes cast, was rejected in the course of the debate (Rule 54(3) of Rules of Procedure):

Point 1.2

Amend as follows:

EU University/HEI - Business Forum should concentrate on cooperation and action


For: 27

Against: 49

Abstentions: 7