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The future will be different

Society’s response to coronavirus must be as radical as the pandemic’s impact, says Kurt Deketelaere

As I approach my 54th birthday this summer, I am coming to realise that the last decades of my life will not be business as usual. The impact of Covid-19 on our society is, and will be, transformative in all kinds of ways.

For universities, the pandemic will probably reverse, at least temporarily, the growing internationalisation of research and education. The movement of students and staff, such as in the Erasmus programme, may not be as easy or appealing as it has been. Universities with a business model based on the high tuition fees paid by foreign students may get into trouble, as is already happening to Australian institutions.

For these, and countless other reasons, a vaccine is more than urgent.

Notwithstanding the tremendous global death toll and sorrow, I have seen many positive things in my natural habitat of European universities. Over the past few weeks, labs have joined forces to beat the virus with maximum haste; faculties have switched to digital teaching for their students with remarkable speed; rectorates have managed their institutions efficiently and effectively.

All of these have been achieved in circumstances never experienced before. I have been reminded again, with huge admiration, of what hard-working and flexible institutions universities are.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about many political leaders at both national and European level. The virus has been too quick off the mark for almost all of them.

Honourable exception

There is one exception—European commissioner Mariya Gabriel, responsible for research, innovation and education. At high speed, she has directed a multitude of financial, technical and policy measures within Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ to support research and innovation related to Covid-19, along with student mobility and digital education. And together with the member states, she has devised and launched an ‘ERAvsCorona’ action plan.

It was an impressive response—and one that showed up the uselessness of the plan to tackle Covid-19 put forward by Mauro Ferrari, former president of the European Research Council.

However, the presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council—respectively Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and Charles Michel—have been less successful in getting the 27 member states on the same economic and financial page. Joining forces and showing solidarity has been slow and difficult.

Nonetheless, the Marshall Plan for Europe proposed by von der Leyen deserves every support—which is, unfortunately, more than it has received from national governments so far. At its heart should lie a powerful EU budget for 2021-2027 that invests strategically in innovative research, digital infrastructures, clean energy, the circular economy, smart transport systems, and so on.

A plan of this nature, also incorporating the proposed Green Deal, will help build a more modern, sustainable and resilient Europe. It is key that the European Council approves both the budget, in the form of the Multiannual Financial Framework, and plan before the end of 2020.

If the pandemic has proven one thing, it is that more money must be invested in research and innovation. Horizon Europe must be made into a powerful tool for tackling the grand societal challenges confronting the planet. Delaying a decision on the MFF, by months or even years, as some have suggested, is undesirable and will be damaging.

Renewed respect

Covid-19 has led to something else: the rehabilitation of the expert. The rise of populism and its culture wars has seen academic experts and universities under continuous fire.

The battle against coronavirus has brought with it a very welcome rehabilitation of experts and universities as deserving society’s trust and respect. Academic experts are all over the place, developing vaccines, assisting ministers and informing the public. They and their institutions, the universities, are doing what they have always done, serving and guiding society.

Those experts are also helping to show that the problems created by Covid-19 are not only medical, but also sociological, legal, economic, financial, ethical, philosophical and criminological, to name just a few. Multidisciplinary is key, but incorporating this in research and teaching is still a challenge for universities.

It’s clear that there are difficult times ahead for the European Union, its 27 member states and universities alike. Strong leadership will be necessary at all levels.

The aim must be collaboration, solidarity and sustainability as the only paths to a safe and secure future. Because, to quote Peter Drucker, the only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.

Kurt Deketelaere is secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities and professor of law at KU Leuven

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe