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EU’s plan for excellence will not shift the dial

We know what top research institutions look like. They don’t come cheap, says Jürgen Janger

There are encouraging signs that EU research policy is engaging with reality. And the reality is that while many of its universities produce world-class work, few are strong across the board in the manner of Oxford, Cambridge or the elite United States institutions.

It’s therefore welcome that the idea that Europe is excellent at science but poor at translating it into commercial applications—the so-called ‘European paradox’—is giving way to an understanding that knowledge production itself needs to improve.

For example, the 2021 European Research Area Policy Agenda set the objective to “raise excellence in science and value creation in Europe’s university sector and increase its global competitiveness”, suggesting EU-level policies such as a European Excellence Initiative.

A report published by the European Commission in November offers a glimpse of what such EU-level policies might look like. It looks at the performance of EU higher education institutions in the six areas of institutional change defined by the ERA. These include addressing societal challenges, collaboration with business, citizen engagement and pursuing open science.

Improving the conditions for doing research, however, does not figure among the report’s priorities for institutional change. Without this, aiming to shift the direction of research will have little impact.

Solving societal challenges, for example, needs breakthrough research. In the past, many such breakthroughs have come from curiosity-driven basic research, which the report barely mentions. Similarly, better commercialisation of research flows from better knowledge production.

On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why some of the report’s recommendations should apply only to ‘excellent’ institutions. Every higher education institution should adopt open science, engaging with citizens, reformed assessment systems and so on, regardless of its research performance.

Impact of resources

In terms of building excellence, the report also overlooks a large body of evidence on the policies, structures and measures for supporting knowledge production and the characteristics of leading institutions. One of these is resources. In a recent study, my colleagues and I used data from the European Tertiary Education Register to show that for European universities, total spending and research output are tightly linked (information on research spending is more patchy but, where available, aligns closely with total spending).

Europe’s 50 leading universities, measured by the proportion of highly cited articles among their total output, spend on average about 3.5 times more per student than universities outside of the top 100. The group from 51-100 spends about twice as much.

Most of the top 50 are in the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Adjusting for national prices, Oxford and Cambridge spend five to six times more per student than the leading comprehensive universities in continental Europe.

The Swiss federal technological universities ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne spend about three times more than the top German or Austrian technological universities such as the technical universities of Munich and Vienna. To match ETH Zurich’s per-student spend, TU Vienna would need to increase its annual spending from close to €400 million to more than €1.1 billion.

These are enormous differences. To put them into perspective, the European Universities Initiative currently provides €2m of funding each year to each multi-institution alliance in the scheme. Germany’s flagship national excellence initiative provides €10m-€15m to each chosen university per year.

Given the sums involved, any excellence initiative aimed at giving EU institutions a research environment comparable to the top US, UK or Swiss universities would need to concentrate funding on a small number of institutions.

Further measures

More money alone, however, will not do the trick. Other factors such as the design of career paths, recruitment practices and the organisation of research and teaching, including doctoral training, matter greatly.

Allowing teaching in English, for example, would make many EU institutions much more attractive. In research, talented young researchers look for early independence, tenure conditional solely on performance and working with strong peers.

It would be easy to draw up a blueprint for a good research environment, drawing on best practice and existing knowledge to inform an EU-level excellence initiative. To add real value to European research, the EU could then provide large amounts of funding to a small number of institutions that commit in turn to structural reforms aimed at optimising the conditions for knowledge production. 

Jürgen Janger is a senior economist at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research in Vienna

This article also appeared in Research Europe