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Document 52015IE2595

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Engaged universities shaping Europe’ (own-initiative opinion)

OJ C 71, 24.2.2016, p. 11–19 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)



Official Journal of the European Union

C 71/11

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Engaged universities shaping Europe’

(own-initiative opinion)

(2016/C 071/03)



On 19 March 2015, the European Economic and Social Committee, acting under Rule 29(2) of its Rules of Procedure, decided to draw up an own-initiative opinion on:

Engaged universities shaping Europe

(own-initiative opinion).

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee’s work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 19 November 2015.

At its 512th plenary session, held on 9 and 10 December 2015 (meeting of 9 December 2015), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 143 votes to 1 with 7 abstentions.

1.   Recommendations


The future of Europe depends heavily on the availability of state-of-the-art knowledge and talented people in an open and knowledge-driven society. Universities have a key role to play in this process. If each Member State acts alone, the result will always be less than ideal.


The EESC underlines that national and EU competences should be shared and fine-tuned in order to create a European Higher Education (HE) Area. The concept of a civic and entrepreneurial university can also be very helpful in fostering the quality of HE in Europe.


The state of play shows that despite progress being made, there are still many obstacles and restraints that also hamper effective EU involvement. Different cultures, vested interests, a lack of financial resources and demographic developments often make it hard to provide up-to-date responses to dynamic challenges such as globalisation, new technologies, and mobility.


The EESC is of the opinion that the European institutions must act as a stimulus and speed up the process of modernising European HE, in terms of education as well as research and innovation. Universities have an autonomous mission that serves the public interest. Subsidiarity and the varied landscape of universities do not allow for a one-size-fits-all approach. Strategic guidance and support at EU level, however, can help decisively to improve conditions.


What is crucial is that the European Commission stimulate and push forward the agenda for the process of transforming European universities into co-drivers for growth and social cohesion and for the well-being of society.


Explicit reference should be made to the modernisation of HE in the National Reform programmes (NRP) and in the Country-Specific Recommendations (CSR).


The EU should demonstrate its commitment to HE through the Europe 2020 Strategy (including the semester), Erasmus+, Horizon 2020, the regional and cohesion funds, and by making cross-border mobility easier for students and lecturers.


Strategic consultations at EU level should add to discussions and projects in and between countries and universities in order to boost any quality of European universities. Best practices should be systematically disseminated.


Once again, the EESC underlines the need for HE institutions to develop real autonomy, accountability and transparency as essential prerequisites for modernisation (1). These prerequisites cannot be met without appropriate and adequate funding.


At a time of deep social and economic change, transforming universities is a long-term and laborious process. Universities need to develop an open attitude to society’s needs, and must include outreach to other stakeholders.


The EESC welcomes the concept of the civic university and the ‘triple helix’ and ‘quadruple helix’ model (2). The focus is on opening up HE, on broadening access, on the regional context, on integrating ideas from all (potential) stakeholders into programmes, and on a smart, up-to-date relationship between research and education.


The civic university has a number of elements in common with the entrepreneurial university. It emphasises its autonomous mission, and is open to the labour market and social relevance of educational curricula and of research and innovation. Stakeholder platforms (3) can be very helpful in co-defining requirements. PPP structures between universities and social groupings of any kind can be equally beneficial.


The level of teaching and adequate preparedness for subsequent jobs should remain a priority whatever the specialisation of a (top) university. Excellence in teaching also needs to be rewarded.


The Commission should play a stimulating role in cross-border cross-fertilisation projects between universities, lecturers and students as well as in promoting openness to the world; and in developing instruments, such as U-Multirank, where appropriate for students and other stakeholders.

2.   State of play


The considerable variations between universities in Europe are due to highly-differing traditions and cultures (4). In 1999 the Bologna process started a successful trend towards modernising curricula.


Since 2008, the financial and economic crisis has forced universities to re-evaluate their operations even more closely and to seek out new financing sources and value for money. This has increased competition for scarce resources. A lack of sufficient funding poses a real problem for many universities, and is an impediment to the modernisation agenda.


The deep and dynamic transformation society is undergoing as a consequence of globalisation and new technologies is leaving its mark on universities. Higher education, research and innovation are at the heart of sustainable economic recovery, but financial constraints and the transformation process reveal equally marked shortcomings.


One fundamental aspect is the lack of autonomy, accountability and transparency. Substantial discrepancies exist between the Member States (5).


Best practice demonstrates that a review of structures and curricula, as well as greater openness and cooperation, boost quality and output.


HE should be within the reach of all talented people today. A growing correlation between access and social-economic background jeopardises the principle of equity. Moreover, in a number of countries HE by no means guarantees a safe job. During the crisis, youngsters with a higher education have by no means been safe from unemployment.


Demographic trends are detrimental to (increasingly) less populated and less competitive areas. This development often has serious consequences for attracting teachers and students and for the quality of the teachers and students attracted. Some countries are facing a brain drain. New private universities in the countries concerned, lacking adequate quality assurance, generate unsatisfactory outcomes. This is aggravated by a lack of funding for traditional HE.


The desire for closer relations between universities and society fuels discussions everywhere on their role in society, and on alliances with other stakeholders such as businesses, social partners, and civil society.


There is often a painfully-felt mismatch between graduates’ skills and labour market needs, between supply and demand. Businesses complain about a lack of skilled professionals, especially in the technical professions and ICT. Rapid changes in the global knowledge-base mean that, now more than ever, the right skill set for the 21st century is needed to enable graduates to systematically update their knowledge.


Furthermore, new technologies and digitisation are forcing HE to adapt and fine-tune existing methodologies. New forms of teaching and learning are becoming established, including student-centred learning, and online courses. Nevertheless, physical university campuses will continue to play a key role in local and regional communities as meeting grounds for education, research and networking.


Students and academics/university teachers are becoming increasingly mobile worldwide. In the upper ranks, there is an ongoing ‘battle for talent’, but the overall trend is broader. The quality and attractiveness of European universities are key draw factors for students from abroad, contributing to education and research, and generating long-lasting networks.


In striving for greater output, (top) universities often emphasise research as their prime task and financial regulations support this. A primary focus on research tends to undermine the optimal balance and interaction between research and teaching.

3.   Transforming universities and opening them up


The development of universities into knowledge hubs in society as an integral part of the EU ecosystem fuels a discussion on the essential characteristics of HE, on which day-to-day practices must be based.


While there are different approaches, a common trend seems to be the opening-up of HE to the opinions and interests of public and private stakeholders and students, and to issues such as cross-fertilisation between research and education and greater cooperation and internationalisation.


For most universities this is a long-term and laborious process. It is not easy for big, traditional institutions to change their behaviour. Moreover, in many countries existing (political) procedures to appoint governors as well as lecturers and researchers are an obstacle to change. In such cases, independent approaches by and within universities are rare. In the view of the EESC, opening up HE and maintaining an open mind should be a high priority for HE across the continent.


Top-quality research, as well as better-trained and highly-qualified people, is indispensable to the resilience of any economy. The crisis has had a detrimental effect on results in knowledge centres, while analyses prove a direct link between outstanding research and education, and economic performance.


Universities no longer target the upper echelons of society. Their number and size have increased dramatically. The landscape has become more diverse: more categories, notably, applied sciences universities alongside research universities, regional HE alongside national and international universities, and a greater number of faculties, notably in the economic and technical sectors, etc.


Broadening access to HE is rightly a political priority across the continent. In the EU, 40 % of the upcoming generation should be able to get a university degree. In addition, curricula, learning tools (the use of modern media in blended learning, etc.), the relationship between research and education, as well as other aspects such as internationalisation and the public interest, bear no resemblance to the way they were in the past. Management methods need to adjust accordingly.


Autonomous, accountable, and transparent universities should be enabled to act as freely as possible within a legal framework that encourages bottom-up forces and competition as a major contribution to broader participation and smart specialisation.


An open attitude, including clear outreach to other stakeholders, should sustain universities as drivers for growth, competitiveness and social cohesion.


For the economic viability of the local and regional community, concepts of the civic and entrepreneurial university can be very useful. These concepts require both ambition and close cooperation between universities, their stakeholders, and public authorities.

4.   The civic university


The EESC welcomes the concept of civic university (6). This goes beyond teaching, academic research and knowledge. A civic university engages actively with the public and the surrounding society — at all levels. Every university can add a civic dimension to its performance by taking on the role both of intellectually productive power station for the community and of receiving substation, transforming excellent ideas from elsewhere into its own specific context.


Such processes are taking place across Europe — through demand-driven research, problem-based learning, cooperation between universities and local communities, schools, hospitals, businesses etc. However, a substantial amount of capacity-building is still needed (7).


At regional level, universities can support a holistic approach and be leaders in bringing together relevant stakeholders to address common challenges. A well-designed civic university can also play an important role in promoting the output of regions in difficulty.


The model’s form will vary from university to university. In addition to those universities directly concerned by less affluent areas with weak economic performance and/or demographic difficulties, criteria that would qualify a university as ‘civic’ are valid for a far wider group. These days, world-class European universities and those with similar ambitions are also increasingly and rightly attracted by civic engagement.


The civic university presents a model for universities that want to move beyond outdated methods of management or traditional approaches. This is particularly important in cases, where young talents should be challenged to contribute to the national or regional economy. Deeper cooperation with the relevant stakeholders in all regions must be a formula that drives openness and modernisation.


Respective Council presidencies rightly adopted a similar approach in the Lund and Rome Declarations (8), underlining the need for research to focus on the major challenges of our time, moving beyond rigid thematic approaches and involving stakeholders from both the public and private sectors. When it comes to shaping the European Research Area and the Innovation Union, Responsible Research and Innovation is a central objective, spanning all relevant policies and activities. These principles are also priorities under Horizon 2020.


Alongside the ‘triple helix’ model — which involves cooperation between universities, the private sector, government — is the ‘quadruple helix’ model, which also engages local communities and civil society. It has a strong sense of place and a sense of purpose and is transparent and accountable to its stakeholders and the wider public. This presents a new opportunity for civil society to get involved.


One specific group requiring attention is former students: alumni. More can be done in Europe to engage them in helping to improve universities’ output and image. Europe could follow the example of common US practice here.


Alumni should be seen as an integral part of the university community. They can be ambassadors for a university, regionally, nationally and internationally, and driving forces in the discussion on curricula, which is especially useful in times of dynamic change. They can be instrumental in the discussion on the balance between research and education as well as between research and the market. A specific goal could be to use alumni as coaches for recent graduates, especially first-generation students, including those with foreign backgrounds.


Greater alumni mobility generates successful international networks, which can be equally beneficial for their universities and for industry.

5.   The entrepreneurial university


‘The civic university’ has a number of elements in common with the entrepreneurial university. Universities are not companies. They have an autonomous mission in the public interest, notably to educate, to carry out (top-level) research, and to the use of knowledge by society at large. The entrepreneurial university has a dual focus: on steering and managing the institution and on fostering students’ entrepreneurial skills and sense of initiative.


The labour market relevance of educational curricula and the societal relevance of research and innovation are very important. Communication and interaction with the private sector at national/regional level are crucial to meet the challenges facing society.


The silo mentality is no longer useful. Technological dynamics and societal challenges call for continual adjustment. The demand side is increasingly complicated, requiring inter- and trans-disciplinary competences and an openness to any new development. Besides professional competences, this also entails the need to develop skills. Stakeholders platforms, linked with universities, can be very helpful with jointly defining requirements. Teaching staff must be properly prepared for this dynamic context. Entrepreneurship skills (9) should also be taught in all kinds of HE across the European Union.


Similarly, PPP structures bringing together universities and social groupings, such as business circles and the health sector, can be equally beneficial.


A valuable project for universities would be to create ‘Education Value Chains’, in cooperation with business sectors. There are two main purposes to this:

to facilitate links and the exchange of information with business sectors, in order to improve learning outcomes for the individual graduate and for business,

to distribute resources and funds among the various components of the ‘educational chain’, from the Commission and the national ministries down to school authorities and, finally, to the students. In parallel, technical and apprenticeship education should be promoted.


Similarly, performance agreements, as applied in some Member States, will boost universities’ specialisation, profile and image. They can have a wide international as well as a regional focus, and improve the ambition and quality of both programmes and students. To achieve this, consistent commitment on both sides (governments and HE) is essential.


Innovation should affect research and education as well as governance. A successful example of bottom-up improvement is HEinnovate, an independent online self-assessment tool, developed by the European Commission (10). Wider use of this tool should be encouraged.


Internationally-presented university programmes as well as a broad panoply of competing online courses is on offer for students who want to be more mobile. Comparability and transparency should foster competition and convergence in terms of performance. Transparency tools such as U-Multirank in the EU have great potential and universities need to consider how to use this type of instrument more effectively.


All talented people should have a fair chance to enter higher education. Fee-paying systems are becoming increasingly widespread. As a result, students become more critical of the education they receive. But any social selection resulting from the introduction of fees must be excluded. Student support (based on socioeconomic background) must ensure fair access for everyone to appropriate education. Moreover, fee-paying systems must not be misused to replace existing public funding.


Demographic developments also call for additional efforts to be made to boost the number of graduates in the regions concerned, specifically to promote the resilience and future viability of those regions.


Where both students and business are concerned, higher education and research must be strongly interlinked. By contrast, financing models tend to favour research outputs, resulting in fewer university teachers actually teaching.


Universities must take due account of the fact that the vast majority of graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and even PhDs, will take up jobs in society and business, outside academia. Consequently, educational standards and adequate preparedness for jobs should remain a priority whatever the specialisation of a (top) university. In this respect, the US provides an example that Europe should not follow (11). The formula for Europe is to strive for excellence and equity.


Digitisation is a paradigm shift that is affecting HE profoundly in terms of teaching and (blended (12)) learning, teachers’ and students’ skills, and governance structures. More dynamism and flexibility will be required at all levels. In this regard, closer cooperation between HE and the private sector is also beneficial, if not essential.

6.   Putting forward the European dimension


The EESC welcomes the fact that all of the above subjects, together with the modernisation of HE, are increasingly present on the EU agenda. It would be desirable to find a common approach to ensuring successful completion of the European HE Area and the European Research Area.


Open and transparent universities, in addition to a well-defined European guiding strategy, will be highly beneficial for the single market and for the modernisation of a resilient European society in the global arena. The free movement of students, researchers and knowledge is essential to this.


EU engagement in HE began with the promotion of scientific research in consecutive framework programmes. Meanwhile the EU’s commitment to the field of education is expanding. The Stability and Growth Pact emphasises the need to uphold growth-inducing expenses, including HE in particular.


Two of the five Europe 2020 headline targets are directly related to HE: investment in R & D and innovation, and education. They commit a number of different commissioners. In 2014, the CSRs revealed that around half the Member States face serious problems regarding skills mismatch and labour market relevance, as well as an ongoing lack of cooperation between HE and business or other stakeholders.


The CSRs point to the need to address employability and the needs of the private sector and of students/graduates as future employees (or employers) as well as competitiveness, through more effective cooperation between HE, research institutions and business. The EESC insists that the follow-up of the CSRs should be monitored more effectively and the results discussed openly by the Commission and the Council.


However, in contrast to the need for HE to be autonomous and accountable, there are political forces in Member States calling for more regulation, which would lead to less autonomy. In these cases, subsidiarity is invoked as a principle, consequently preventing the harmonisation of HE systems in Europe. This would damage the interests of students and of society as a whole.


Higher and broader qualifications should be put to use in the EU and beyond. This calls for cross-border cross-fertilisation between universities, lecturers and students and for openness to the world. An explicit commitment from the Council, the Member States and the Commission should lead to enhanced HE performance through better sharing and fine-tuning of national and EU competences.


The EESC constantly underlines the crucial importance of EU research and innovation programmes. Cross-border research fosters return on investment, EU programmes encourage a focus on key technologies and strategic themes, cross-national financing leads to higher outputs, and European scientific alliances give a real boost to European competitiveness. To this end, new knowledge also needs to be shared more widely, notably by open access.


Under the seventh framework programme (FP7) and, since 2014 under Horizon 2020, the European Research Council successfully supports high quality research through competitive funding. However, structural barriers still impede the cross-border mobility of researchers, academics and students.


Increasingly, the performance of HE and research is assessed and made transparent worldwide. Universities are cooperating and competing on a global scale, working on joint research projects, pursuing excellence and, increasingly, recruiting both students and staff from outside the EU. This is a key issue, and yet national regulations and a lack of stimulus can stifle progress in this area. International measuring proves that the gap between Europe’s best performers and others is widening.


Greater efforts need to be made to involve excellent researchers from all over Europe in joint projects. Pockets of excellence across the continent need to be connected and to participate in Europe’s excellent research projects.


Mobility among academics and students in Europe is limited, as cross-border movement is still artificially hampered. Ensuring equal working conditions for researchers and academics, along with greater convergence of curricula and student degrees in Europe is a matter of urgency.


Inadequate statistics should be improved and put to better use in order to measure the extent of mobility and to support it.


The opening-up and upgrading of universities, as well as cultural diversification through increased internationalisation are healthy. Moreover, students, supported by up-to-date social media, transparency instruments such as U-Multirank, and the specialisation of universities are encouraged to make specific choices. Pragmatic solutions at EU level should help them.


Closer cooperation among those willing can show the way forward. One example is the recent agreement between the Benelux countries concerning the automatic mutual recognition of diplomas. This is a decisive step forwards (13). A trend for the mutual recognition of university degrees and the different degrees in sciences will help reduce barriers between universities and create open exchanges.


Adequate quality-assurance systems need to be internationalised and should have a clear European connection. This includes the need to recognise accreditation decisions. Any initiative in this field should be welcomed (14). A process of mutual recognition should gradually lead to Europe-wide accreditation and will, in particular, boost the quality of teaching in underperforming universities.


Such practices would be beneficial across Europe for both mobility and employability. By introducing one degree for several universities, joint programmes between universities would become far more attractive. Support for twinning should be considered. The exchange of administrative and teaching practices on the spot may enhance quality.


A basic condition for internationalisation is the use of common languages. Knowledge of (more than two) languages is desirable for cultural and economic reasons. English might be today’s lingua franca. Progress on improving language skills is too slow. Making it mandatory for students to know one foreign language should be taken into consideration.


The Erasmus+ programme has been a great success and a huge step forward in facilitating mobility. It is also well received by business. It fits in very well with the Commission’s guiding principle of growth and jobs. The financing of the programme should meet growing demand. Any legal constraints to student exchanges should be removed.


European structural and investment funds are rightly focusing on innovation and growth factors, including research. The Commission must play a guiding role in improving the participation of universities in regional projects.


As a rule, universities are independent from local and regional authorities, although there are notable exceptions. These should be highlighted. A very positive contribution is also being made by the ESIF programme, which links research through RIS3 (15) to EU regional programmes, fostering an innovation-friendly environment.


Universities should be aware of RIS3 and its application at various levels. Together with committed regional authorities they should play an active role in the programme.


Unfortunately, for reasons of governance, universities are still underusing the ESIF programme. Synergies between EU programmes (ESIF, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+) need to be sought, but tend to be blocked by conflicting conditions.

Brussels, 9 December 2015.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Georges DASSIS

(1)  See EESC opinion Universities for Europe (OJ C 128, 18.5.2010, p. 48).

(2)  See 4.7.

(3)  These platforms should consist of business and social partners as well as regional partners.

(4)  In this opinion, all higher education institutions are referred to as universities. In some countries, an important distinction is made between research universities and universities of applied sciences, while other countries refer to universities for both categories.

(5)  The Autonomy scoreboard of the European University Association reveals that much still remains to be desired when looking at organisational, financial, staffing or academic autonomy in various countries (

(6)  This model has been endorsed by various organisations, such as ERRIN, the European Regions Research and Innovation Network, and ECIU, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities. A strong spokesman is also John Goddard, formerly Deputy Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University.

(7)  EESC Workshop, 13 June 2014 — Universities for Europe.

(8)  Lund Declaration 2009, Rome Declaration 2014.

(9)  Recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning (2006/962/EC). Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship refers to an individual’s ability to turn ideas into action. It includes creativity, innovation and risk-taking, as well as the ability to plan and manage projects in order to achieve objectives.

(10)  See, HEInnovate, How entrepreneurial is your HEI?

(11)  See The Economist, 28 March 2015, Special report on American universities: Excellence v equity.

(12)  Blended learning is making (integrated) use of both traditional and open (online) education.

(13)  On 18 May 2015, the Benelux countries signed an agreement on the automatic mutual recognition of all university degrees. As part of the Bologna-process, the Pathfinder Group recommends to explore system level automatic recognition on a regional basis with like-minded partner countries.

(14)  For example, on 9 July 2015 the Akkreditierungsrat (Germany) and the NVAO (Nl, Bel-Fl) have agreed to recognise each other’s accreditation decisions regarding joint programmes between the countries.

(15)  RIS3: National/Regional Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation.