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The role of universities in the Europe of knowledge

This summary has been archived and will not be updated,because the summarised document is no longer in force or does not reflect the current situation.

The role of universities in the Europe of knowledge

This Communication aims to start a debate on the role of European universities in the knowledge society and economy.


Communication from the Commission of 5 February 2003 - The role of the universities in the Europe of knowledge [COM(2003) 58 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


Given their central role, the creation of a Europe of knowledge is for the universities a source of opportunity, but also of major challenges. Indeed universities go about their business in an increasingly globalised environment which is constantly changing and is characterised by increasing competition to attract and retain outstanding talent, and by the emergence of new requirements for which they have to cater. Yet European universities generally have less to offer and lower financial resources than their equivalents in the other developed countries, particularly the USA. Are they in a position to compete with the best universities in the world and provide a sustainable level of excellence? This question is particularly topical as enlargement draws nearer, considering the frequently difficult circumstances of universities in the accession countries as regards human and financial resources.

The European university landscape

European universities are characterised by a high degree of heterogeneity, which is reflected in organisation, governance and operating conditions, including the status and conditions of employment and recruitment of teaching staff and researchers.

There are some 3 300 higher education establishments in the European Union and approximately 4 000 in Europe as a whole, including the other countries of western Europe and the candidate countries. They take in an increasing number of students, over 12.5 million in 2000, compared with fewer than 9 million ten years previously. They employ 34 % of the total number of researchers in Europe, with significant variations from one Member State to another (26 % in Germany, 55 % in Spain and over 70 % in Greece).

The European Union produces slightly more science and technology graduates than the USA, while having fewer researchers than the other major technological powers. This apparent paradox is explained by the fact that fewer research posts are open to science graduates in Europe, particularly in the private sector: only 50 % of European researchers work in the business sector, compared with 83 % of American researchers and 66 % of Japanese researchers. Despite this, the universities are responsible for 80 % of the fundamental research carried out in Europe.

Universities and the European dimension

Universities are essentially organised at national and regional levels and seem to have difficulty in finding a truly European dimension. Student mobility, for instance, is still marginal in Europe. In 2000, a mere 2.3 % of European students were pursuing their studies in another European country. However, the EU funds a variety of initiatives to promote research, education and training at both European and international levels.

In the area of research, European universities receive around one third of the funding available under the fifth (1998-2002) and sixth (2002-2006) framework programmes for technological research and development, and particularly the support actions for research training and mobility (Marie Curie actions). As far as education and training are concerned, universities are very much involved in all the actions of the SOCRATES programme, particularly the ERASMUS action. The LEONARDO programme supports projects on mobility between universities and the business sector, involving 40 000 people between 1995 and 1999. Universities are also involved in the eEurope initiative and its eEurope 2005 Action Plan, which encourages all universities to develop online access ("virtual campus") for students and researchers.

This cooperation also extends to other regions of the world. Most of the Community research Framework Programme is open to every country in the world and in particular provides support for cooperation with the countries in the Mediterranean region, Russia and the Newly Independent States, as well as developing countries. Through the TEMPUS programme the EU supports university cooperation with the countries of the former Soviet Union, south-east Europe and, since its extension in 2002, the Mediterranean region. There are also initiatives covering relations with other geographical areas, e.g. ALFA and Asia-Link.

Universities and new European challenges

Universities are facing an imperative need to adapt and adjust to a whole series of profound changes:

  • Increased demand for higher education. The low birth rate in Europe coincides with an increased demand for higher education, which is expected to continue in the years ahead, firstly because of the policy adopted by certain governments of increasing the number of students in higher education and also because new needs are emerging in relation to lifelong learning.
  • The internationalisation of education and research. European universities are attracting fewer students and in particular fewer researchers from other countries than their American counterparts. The former in 2000 attracted some 450 000 students from other countries, while the latter attracted over 540 000, mostly from Asia. However, the USA in proportion attracts many more students from other countries at advanced levels in engineering, mathematics and informatics, and are successful in keeping more people with doctorate qualifications: some 50 % of Europeans who obtained their qualifications in the USA stay there for several years, and many of them remain permanently. European universities in fact offer researchers and students a less attractive environment. This is partly due to the fact that they often do not have the necessary critical mass, which prompts them to opt for collaborative approaches, e.g. creation of networks, joint courses or diplomas. But other factors, outside the university, also play an important role, e.g. the rigidities of the labour market or a lower level of entrepreneurship entailing fewer employment opportunities in innovative sectors.
  • To develop effective and close cooperation between universities and industry. Cooperation between universities and industry needs to be intensified by gearing it more effectively towards innovation, new business start-ups and, more generally, the transfer and dissemination of knowledge.
  • The proliferation of places where knowledge is produced. The increasing tendency of the business sector to subcontract research activities to the best universities mean that universities have to operate in an increasingly competitive environment.
  • The reorganisation of knowledge. This is to be seen in the increasing diversification and specialisation of knowledge, and the emergence of research and teaching specialities which are increasingly specific and at the cutting edge. It is also seen in the fact that the academic world has an urgent need to adapt to the interdisciplinary character of the fields opened up by society's major problems, such as sustainable development, the new medical scourges and risk management. Yet the activities of the universities, particularly when it comes to teaching, tend to remain organised within the traditional disciplinary framework.
  • The emergence of new expectations. Universities must cater for new needs in education and training which stem from the knowledge-based economy and society. These include an increasing need for scientific and technical education, horizontal skills, and opportunities for lifelong learning, which require greater permeability between the components and the levels of the education and training systems.

Universities and new European challenges

Excellence in human resources depends largely on available financial resources, but is also affected by working conditions and career prospects. Generally speaking, career prospects in European universities, characterised by the multiplicity of configurations, are limited and shrouded in uncertainty. However, while there are many challenges, there is also a great deal at stake. This Communication focuses on three factors:

  • Ensuring that European universities have sufficient and sustainable resources. Traditionally, public funding is the main source of funding for research and education in European universities. Possible alternative sources are:
  • Increasing universities' excellence in research and teaching. This Communication calls on European universities to identify the areas in which different universities have attained, or can reasonably be expected to attain, the excellence judged to be essential at European or at international level, in order to concentrate funding on them to support academic research. The concentration of research funding on a smaller number of areas and institutions will lead to increased specialisation of the universities, which will make it possible to obtain appropriate quality at national level in certain areas, while ensuring excellence at European level.In addition, to counter the current trend among European universities of recruiting people from the country or region in which they are established, or even within the institution itself, the Communication proposes to strengthen not only intra-European academic mobility, but also mobility between universities and industry, thus opening up new career opportunities for young researchers.
  • Opening up universities to the outside world and increasing their international attractiveness. For European universities, a broader international perspective means greater competition with universities on the other continents, particularly American universities, when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent from all over the world. While European universities host almost as many foreign students as American universities, in proportion they attract fewer top-level students and a smaller proportion of researchers. All in all, the environment offered by the European universities is less attractive. Financial, material and working conditions are not as good, and arrangements with regard to visas and residence permits for students, teachers and researchers are inappropriate and poorly harmonised.The regions of the EU are therefore called upon to play an important part in strengthening European cohesion through the development of technology centres and science parks, the proliferation of regional cooperation structures between the business sector and the universities, the expansion of university regional development strategies and the regional networking of universities.

As the aim of this Communication is to start a debate on the role of universities, the Commission intends to review the contributions it has received by the end of May 2003.


In order for European universities to play a key role in achieving the strategic goal set at the Lisbon European Council, i.e. to make the European Union (EU) the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, this Communication is intended to start a debate on the role of European universities in the knowledge society and economy. While the birth and growth of the knowledge economy and society rely on the combination of four interdependent elements, i.e. the production of new knowledge, its transmission through education and training, its dissemination through the information and communication technologies and its use through new services or industrial processes, it is Europe's universities which are the key players in this new process.


Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 February 2006 on further European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education [Official Journal L 64 of 04.03.2006].

Communication from the Commission of 10 January 2003 - Investing efficiently in education and training : an imperative for Europe [COM(2002) 779 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Communication from the Commission of 20 April 2005 - Mobilising the brainpower of Europe : enabling universities to make their full contribution to the Lisbon Strategy [COM(2005) 152 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Council Recommendation (EC) No 561/98 of 24 September 1998 on European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education [Official Journal L 64 of 04.03.2006].

Last updated: 19.04.2006