Go back

Time for the EU to get its act together on universities


Unhelpful mix of action and inaction is hindering research and education policy, says Kurt Deketelaere

A casual observer of EU research and education policy could be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy in the world of higher education institutions.

Last month’s meeting of the EU Competitiveness Council produced eloquent statements on strengthening the contribution of research to policymaking and on making research careers more stable and attractive. In the run-up to the meeting, the European Commission published reports on the positive development of the European Research Area, the European Education Area, the European Universities Initiative and Horizon Europe’s missions. 

Unfortunately, the reality is more nuanced. The EU’s institutions are producing a mix of action and inaction that is gradually becoming an obstacle to the development of research and higher education policies. 

The unstoppable EU legislative machine is a prime example of this unhelpful combination. It produces too much legislation without considering what universities need or how they will be affected.

One example is all the legislation on data enacted over the past few years. This has slowed down research and made collaboration more difficult. Will there be a similar story with artificial intelligence? 

At the same time, the EU has ducked legislating to eliminate obstacles to the free circulation of knowledge. The priorities of the European Research Area remain vague aspirations without any legal framework. The same goes for the European framework on research careers announced in July. 

Too often, bad or missing measures force universities to settle for second-best solutions. For example, because education policy is left to member states rather than being a shared competency with the EU, the legislation to protect academic freedom proposed by MEP Christian Ehler applies only to research. The same goes for many of the problems facing European university alliances. 

Budget battle

Then there is the continuous battle over budgets. Daily pronouncements by member states’ ministers on the value of research and education stand in painful contrast to their stinginess regarding European research and education programmes such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus+. 

Underfunding, leading to low success rates, is eroding universities’ faith in key initiatives such as the European Research Council, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Knowledge and Innovation Communities. If such schemes underperform, there will be knock-on effects for big societal issues such as health, climate and the environment. 

University research and education need sustainable funding. EU budgets in these areas need to be twice their current level, and they should be ringfenced so that they can no longer be plundered whenever a new priority arrives.

Strategic autonomy

The EU’s efforts on strategic autonomy show the same mixture of action and inaction. This priority ought to herald stronger policy foundations for the mobilisation of and investment in research and education. Instead, universities see more legislation, guidelines and rules coming down the track. Areas such as dual use, export control, knowledge security, economic security and open access will be affected. 

Universities face new limits to their international ties, at a time when such cooperation is vital to solve urgent global problems. The slow and still limited association of non-EU countries with strong research and education systems to Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ makes such limits more damaging. 

Leru call

The League of European Research Universities therefore calls upon the EU’s present and upcoming leadership to do more to facilitate excellent research and education. 

Excellent research and education need a supportive regulatory environment that removes obstacles and creates opportunities, and a sustainable funding system that rewards excellent proposals and supports effective initiatives and sustainable institutions.

On top of this, academic freedom needs guarantees and protection as an individual right, an institutional right and a state obligation. And finally, policy must aim to make research and education ‘as open as possible, as closed as necessary’, to facilitate global collaboration, respecting the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms. 

The European elections in June, which will elect a new European Parliament and lead to a new Commission, are a great opportunity to persuade present and future policymakers to facilitate Europe’s excellent research and education rather than block them, and to restate that it is these that will determine the future of the EU and its member states. Nothing else. 

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

This article also appeared in Research Europe