The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to comment on the European Commission's Communication on The Role of the Universities in the Europe of Knowledge. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller and the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with extensive experience in this area.
This is an interesting Paper that asks some very penetrating questions about the nature of universities. The document makes clear the ever increasing demands on universities, not only from increase in student numbers, but also in terms of research, consultancy, economic regeneration and growth, and social and cultural activity.
The European Universities Today
In a world where new ideas, new processes and new technologies can be communicated and implemented with unprecedented speed, the capacity of a society both to create and introduce beneficial innovation is vital to its economic success and its social and cultural vitality. Most of this innovative capacity is derived from research, which is primarily transmitted into society by graduates, Ph.D. students and post-doctoral research associates (who not only carry on the business of society in industry, government, finance and the professions) as well as through spin-out companies and direct links with industry. A society that fails to create new intellectual capital through basic research will be a derivative society, dependent upon inspiration from elsewhere and unable to play a leading role in global development. Europe should not submit itself to that fate.
Successful research, whether in the sciences, humanities or social sciences, depends upon a culture that values curiosity, scepticism, serendipity, creativity and genius. Without individuals with those values and the potential to embody them, internationally competitive research will not develop. The co-location of research and teaching in the same institution is essential. Students need to develop these values and capabilities during their education. They can only be acquired if the educational environment itself is one that embodies them through deep familiarity with the practice of research that addresses the boundaries of human knowledge.
Research-based universities are now universally regarded as important drivers of economic development. Although they are most effective in this where there are mature R&D-based industries able to "pull" on the research base, the example of the USA demonstrates that research/university "push" can also be a powerful driver of regional development and the creation of R&D based industry. It is primarily for these reasons that the USA continues to allocate about 2.5% of GDP to support tertiary education and 2.7% of GDP to support research, and why other countries (e.g. China, Singapore, India) are committing major sums to enhance universities and their research roles. In contrast, European investment in Tertiary education is an average of 1.2% of GDP, and 1.93% of GDP in research. It makes little sense to speak of a "Europe of Knowledge" unless there is a change in the level of investment.
The great days of European research and European universities were through the 19th century until the mid-20th century. Since then, almost any indicator of research and university excellence shows that they have been in relative decline. This is not because of the democratic extension of the opportunity for university education to an increasing proportion of the population, which has been a universal phenomenon, but because European governments have permitted funding per student to fall to pay for the increase in numbers. Research funding has also grown at rates less than that of our competitors, and the financial flexibility/viability of the universities has been severely eroded.
In the 20th century, governments world-wide recognised the value of universities in satisfying a diversity of social needs: as providers of trained personnel and creators of useful knowledge in supporting what came to be termed "the knowledge economy"; in providing credible credentials; in promoting mobility and social justice; and in supporting cultural engagement. This recognition has led national and regional governments to become the principal funders of universities, often associated with demands for accountability through processes of quality assurance that have been demanding and bureaucratic, and requirements for universities to respond to specific political imperatives.
The diversity of roles that universities are now called upon to play requires a dynamic and flexible university system, in which all institutions have generic attributes, but which individually focus their activities in different parts of the higher education spectrum, and are able to collaborate effectively across it. They must also be funded in such a way that they can effectively carry out their particular role. The concepts of the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area cannot be effectively developed without articulating the desirable spectrum of university roles in Europe. The two end-points and the intervening mid-point of such a spectrum might be:
1. Universities that offer highly vocational education in restricted or broadly-defined fields supported by appropriate applied research and with strong links to industry, commerce and the public sector in its region.
2. Universities specialising in undergraduate and taught masters education but with some doctoral research, that sustain a sufficiently broad disciplinary range to permit curricular flexibility and evolution, and with a commitment to scholarship that ensures that teaching is based on experience and not second hand knowledge;
3. Universities that are major contributors (in some cases, the major contributor) to national research efforts, with a very high proportion of taught postgraduate and doctoral training, and that aspire to the very highest international standards of research and research-based teaching.
These are all vital roles. They must not be seen as part of a hierarchy of excellence but as a system of excellence in diversity.
Ensuring that the European universities have sufficient and sustainable resources
Increasing and diversifying universities' income
How can adequate public funding of universities be secured, given the budgetary constraints and the need to ensure democratic access?
Issues of funding continue to dominate the discussion in Europe as a whole. The primary funding in Europe still comes from the public purse, and there needs to be a debate, ideally informed by recent economic data from Australia, Scotland and elsewhere, on the relative advantages of higher education to society as a whole and to the individual. The Royal Society of Edinburgh believes society benefits from the graduates produced through higher education, not only in terms of technological and professional skills but also in having a well informed and critical population. In the modern competitive world a large graduate population is essential for economic survival. Nevertheless, there is a case for making students contribute financially towards their higher education, when their annual income allows them to do so, principally because it is an investment from which they can expect to benefit financially in future.
How can private donations be made more attractive, particularly from a tax and legal point of view?
The building up of endowments will be difficult for the great majority of universities in Europe. Although many universities have made strenuous and professional efforts over recent years to attract such funds from alumni, success has been modest and even the wealthiest universities have limited resources of this kind. Private donations could be made more attractive, however, by the removal of taxes on gifts.
How can universities be given the necessary flexibility to allow them to take greater advantage of the booming market in services?
For many years now, the UK Government has promoted a change in culture within the university community, encouraging greater dialogue, partnership and collaboration with business and industry, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh has played a role in supporting this. Most attention has been focused on the transfer of technology and knowledge out of universities, with less being done on the transfer into companies and innovation within companies. The response of industry has been patchy: for example, small to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) have not sought to take as much advantage of links with academia as might be hoped. In many of these SMEs the barrier to knowledge uptake is that the companies are not able to analyse their business process in a way that allows them to envisage technological solutions. Moreover, there is a paucity of university staff with the knowledge, ability and time to undertake the kind of business or process analysis required to interact successfully with these companies.
Using the available financial resources more effectively
How can the maintenance of democratic access to higher education be combined with a reduction in failure and dropout rates among students?
The UK has a relatively small drop-out rate, however, post-18 education has become increasingly focused on a traditional university model, leading to a serious loss in diversity of provision in terms of the duration and style of study and subject matter, and the traditional degree has become the only acceptable qualification. The imposition of "one style fits all" has made it more difficult to match students aptitudes and aspirations with appropriate courses.
With 40% of the new jobs in the present decade likely to be in the associate professional and higher technical echelons, the development of work-focused vocational qualifications should be an important component of the process of expansion. Nonetheless, for these vocational qualifications to be fully effective, society will have to change its attitude to such vocational programmes and not only recognise the enhanced status of these qualifications but reward the graduates accordingly. Employers will have a key role in this process.
How can a better match be achieved between supply of and demand for university qualifications on the labour market, through better guidance?
Guidance to students about the range of opportunities in the job market is vital, but manpower planning has a history of failure. It must not be assumed that university education is generally for a specific job. It is designed to develop capacities that are of wide applicability.
In addition, prospective students are far more intelligent and far-seeing than they are normally given credit for, and they do understand that poorly paid employment in science and engineering-based industries, requiring years of intensive and difficult study, is not intrinsically attractive. This, coupled with poor school teaching, especially in mathematics and physics, is leading to a major crisis in all developed countries. The economic solution: far better pay for scarcity-subject teachers and far higher salary levels in the science and engineering-based industries appears to offer political and commercial problems that have proved insoluble hitherto. Unless they are solved, universities will continue to abandon core science subjects, as many already have, and move into areas where they can be sure of filling their places.
Is there a case for levelling out the duration of courses for identical qualifications?
The standard of attainment must be the yardstick for an award, not the period of study. This question also pre-supposes that the starting point for the students is the same. In the case of England, student ‘A’ levels were seen as having a level of specialism equivalent to first-year study in many European universities, and the normal length of study in England for Chartered Engineer status through an M.Eng. degree is four years. However, in Scotland, with its separate education system, it is five years, and students from such courses are highly valued by industry. There is, however, in this context a clear role for professional bodies to organise trans-Europe validation. Some attempts are being made in this area in some subjects, for example in chemistry via "Eurochemist" designation and the Tuning Project and the Eurobachelor concept and agreed syllabus
How can the transparency of research costs in the universities be enhanced?
A lot of work has been done in the UK on the real costs of research by the UK treasury transparency review , and this work needs urgently to be extended to the rest of Europe in order to understand the extent of hidden subsidy. This is a real problem. European universities increasingly compete for research contracts on a Europe-wide basis, and countries such as the UK, where there is far less subsidy for indirect costs, are seriously disadvantaged.
Applying scientific research results more effectively
How could it be made easier for universities and researchers to set up companies to apply the results of their research and to reap the benefits?
Commercialisation of research covers a multitude of processes itself, including the encouragement of start-up companies with concomitant entrepreneurial training for both students and staff, university spin-outs by staff who have originated potentially valuable intellectual property, licensing of university Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) to third parties, pull-out activity by external entrepreneurs, the formation of intermediate institutions designed to facilitate communication between business and university researchers, SME interactions and consultancy work. It is frequently not obvious, in any given case, which will be the most effective way of commercialising university discoveries, and spin-out companies are usually only one option. In general, universities in Scotland will only seriously explore this option with the member(s) of staff concerned if such staff are clearly prepared to put substantial efforts into the company, and that these efforts are compatible with the other objectives of the department, such as success in the UK Research Assessment Exercise. The fundamental requirements for success in a spin-out are: high-quality technology; a good business plan; high-quality management and, above all, the passion to make a success of the venture on the part of the staff.
Issues of IP are often difficult to resolve. Universities seek to recover the often onerous direct and indirect costs associated with the development of IP and its protection through patenting or other means. In addition, given that not all investment in IP is successful, universities frequently seek an element of risk-related profit as well. However, universities also recognise that they are usually not the most effective vehicle for exploitation of IP. They will wish to own the research (for publications, RAE ratings and further research) but will normally wish to have agreements on the exploitation of IPR with commercial partners in which the interests of all parties (the university itself, the academic staff involved in the invention and the commercial vehicle) can be fairly accommodated. This position is now common amongst universities in the UK, though skill in handling IP certainly varies across institutions. However, in continental Europe the situation is much more complex, and IP is still guarded far too jealously for sensible and fair agreements to be possible Further information on these issues can be found in the joint Scottish Higher Education Funding Council/Scottish Enterprise report on Knowledge Transfer and in the Technology Ventures Scotland report Bridging the Gap.
Is there a way of encouraging the universities and researchers to identify, manage and make best use of the commercial potential of their research?
Whilst some leading research workers may excel at knowledge transfer, this is the exception rather than the rule, and is likely to remain so, with few academic staff having skills in knowledge transfer. There is, therefore, a need to recruit/train a cohort of people who regard technology transfer as a significant part of their job purpose and who have the required skill and ability to work with industry. That will not (and perhaps may never be) the prime driver of university staff who are rewarded and applauded professionally for their skills in research and teaching. It should also be appreciated that the majority of knowledge transfer is undertaken through teaching graduates who then take up jobs in industry and other organisations. Similarly, it should be recognised that enhanced engagement is a two-way process and the business community should also be encouraged to engage with the university sector.
Appropriate infrastructure and personnel in commercialisation departments is another important issue. There is anecdotal evidence of a linear relationship between the volume of research and benchmarks used to measure a university’s commercialisation success. Therefore small universities need to be exceptionally lucky to get enough financial reward to justify the financing of a technology transfer office, unless they share the cost of commercialisation. It is the size of the research base rather than the quality of the technology transfer office that is the primary factor (for example, experience from the large universities has been that most royalties came from 1 or 2 products.) At present, each university in Scotland has its own industrial opportunities team. Consideration should be given to the possibilities of collaboration.
The RSE in partnership with Scottish Enterprise has also run a successful series of Enterprise Fellowships since 1997. These one-year Enterprise Fellowships have equipped post-doctoral researchers, or younger lecturers, with the hands-on business knowledge to enhance the commercialisation potential of their own research. They encourage the establishment of new start-up companies and allow young researchers to devote time to develop their research from a commercial perspective. In Spring 2001, Scottish Enterprise commissioned SQW Ltd to carry out an independent review and evaluation of the 13 Enterprise Fellowships that had been completed at that point. Its report concluded that: "The Enterprise Fellowship programme is shaping up to be an excellent contributor to economic development in Scotland. It is enabling progress to be made in the commercialisation of university research and the establishment of technology-oriented new businesses." The companies which these Enterprise Fellows have created to date include: Intense Photonics, Microemissive Displays, Surfactant Solutions, Edinburgh Biocomputing Solutions, Photonic Materials, Kymata and Intrallect. In recognition of this, Scottish Enterprise announced this year a major expansion in the number of Enterprise Fellowships to be run by the RSE, with funding of £5.5 million for a further 80 new Enterprise Fellowships in Scotland.
Consolidating the excellence of European universities
Creating the right conditions for achieving excellence
How can the consensus be strengthened around the need to promote excellence in the universities in conditions which make it possible to combine autonomy and management efficiency?
There is rarely any real difficulty, at least in UK universities, in attracting very high calibre staff to the most senior management positions, since such positions offer considerable potential for developing universities in clear and strategic ways. However, the position of Head of Department, and to some extent that of Dean as well, is one that is poorly rewarded and increasingly onerous. Different universities will approach this in different ways, but a reduction in the number of departments, methods for pre-identifying and pre-training new Heads of Department, and continuous professional development, especially in newer areas such as risk management, coupled with significantly better pay, are going to be essential components.
Of course, this pre-supposes that highly decentralised models will become the norm in European Universities. This is likely to happen, simply because the complexity even of purely departmental activity is now such that centrally administered systems are bound to fail, probably in the shorter rather than the longer term. Industry tends to see strong management as good management, however, in great universities, ideas and creativity flow upwards and the role of managers is to ensure that finances are sound and to help when they can.
Is there a way of encouraging the universities to manage themselves as efficiently as possible while taking due account simultaneously of their own requirements and the legitimate expectations of society in their regard?
Guardians of public funds demand strong accountability, not only for outcomes but also, wrongly, for processes. Autonomy is vital if a university is to play a strong role in society and the economy. A consensus is needed about accountability that focuses on outputs and judges universities by their results.
What are the steps which would make it possible to encourage an interdisciplinary approach in university work, and who should take them?
Teachers, researchers, students and academic managers are the best judge of the utility of inter-disciplinary work and can develop where it has value. It is however important that assessment regimes and research councils do not create structures that inhibit such work. For example, the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK was judged through conventional disciplinary categories, which inhibited evolution of academic activity. Similarly, the availability of funding for interest driven basic research seems to be necessary to foster such activity. The more directed and focused funding for research becomes the less likely interdisciplinary work is to thrive.
Developing European centres and networks of excellence
How can providers of university funds be encouraged to concentrate their efforts on excellence, particularly in the area of research, so as to attain a European critical mass which can remain competitive in the international league?
The funding of research infrastructure does require substantial resources and not all universities can aspire to the same model. Evidence from competing countries also suggests that size matters and that bigger and more professionally managed organisations appear to produce better results and play an important role in economic development. For example, in an extremely short space of time Dundee University have gained world recognition and attracted some of the worlds leading authorities in the biomedical field.
However, the notion of "European critical mass" in an area of research needs to be treated with some caution and it would be a mistake to imagine that a small number of quite large institutions of very high quality can exist in isolation. They need to rest on a base of institutions, perhaps less prestigious, but where capable staff can do valuable work and in which new staff can make a reputation and possibly be recruited to the top establishments.
How should this excellence be organised and disseminated, whilst managing the impact of the steps taken on all institutions and research teams?
A healthy system must be dynamic and flexible. Depending upon the regional distribution of concentrated specialist institutions could limit the expectations for regional economic growth and cause further imbalance in demographics between regions. Too much concentration also runs the risk of an overly great focus of people and resources into a narrow range of topic areas. This may be good for the research output but will have detrimental effects on the range of available knowledge and skills to the economy. In the UK, increasing research selectivity may also have developed a pattern of research that owes more to very high levels of scholarship and ‘safe’ research than to highly innovative and imaginative, but risky research, with its longer term benefits. Evidence for this can be found in the recent "Chemistry at the Centre" report commissioned by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK, with increasing evidence that high-risk areas of interdisciplinary research, such as chemical biology and materials chemistry, are being neglected.
Nevertheless, there should be continuing examples of the kind provided by CERN, ESRF and ILL where a major facility can only be funded by a truly co-operative effort. However, even there it is the case that data produced in large facilities can be exploited by small groups of researchers distributed around Europe, i.e. there is a combination of a very large facility with substantial sized groups able to exploit it on site, and small groups or even individuals who are able to apply their own skills to data collected in such a facility. Wherever it is the case that individuals do not need access to large pieces of sophisticated equipment, it should be possible for critical mass to be achieved in a distributed fashion so long as adequate opportunities exist for bringing together researchers to debate and discuss their work at regular intervals.
Excellence in human resources
It is vital that research careers are made more attractive to bright young graduates. In the US, the prospect of postgraduate research is a positive one for young graduates. Research careers are seen as exciting and stimulating, largely because of the strong support for basic research, which permits young US researchers to take on the most demanding research challenges that are often beyond the resources available to even the most seasoned researchers elsewhere, and because of the climate of confidence based on past success which encourages them to do so.
Europe needs fellowship programmes and it needs to ensure that a research career is attractive because of the research opportunities it offers. This means that the level of funding of the projects on which such careers are built needs to be increased. In relation to efforts to persuade heads of government to commit to raising R&D expenditure to 3% of GDP, a calculation has been made of a pro-rata increase in the number of researchers required. This is a mistaken approach. There must be an increase in the expenditure per researcher, which in Europe is very low compared with our competitors. In relation to fellowships, the model of the UK Royal Society University Research Fellowships is advocated. They are prestigious fellowships, keenly sought, with a long tenure (5 years renewable to 8 or 10 years), good salaries, strong research support, and flexibility for family and natal arrangements. They are creating a new cohort of highly professional and creative researchers.
The point is also made in the Paper that there are fewer posts for researchers in Europe, particularly in the private sector, than in the USA or Japan, but it then suggests that this issue might be addressed by recruitment of more women into Science and Engineering professions. If these posts are unattractive and few in number, then it is hard to see why they should be attractive to women any more than to men. The problems identified in this section are as much associated with low innovation and R&D spend by European companies as anything else and attempts to address this type of issue by increasing European mobility is to confuse ends with means. Scientific and technical careers will be more attractive where those entering them can see the prospects of continuity of funding. Mechanisms to support researchers in stepping from one project to another are still in short supply and a system of transition grants could be useful in facilitating this; these should include the opportunities for further development of skills for researchers during the course of their careers.
Broadening the perspectives of European universities
A broader international perspective
How can European universities be made more attractive to the best students and researchers from all over the world?
Movement of university scientists from country to country depends on a number of factors including salary, facilities and conditions of employment. Domestic considerations and family, however, are also major considerations. UK universities find it easier to attract scholars in Arts and Social Sciences from abroad than they do scientists and engineers as the resource demands are much more easily satisfied for non-scientists.
In a context of increasing internationalisation of teaching and research, and of accreditation for professional purposes, how should the structures, study programmes and management methods of European universities be changed to help them retain or recover their competitiveness?
The main issues currently are language and cultural ones. There is little appetite overseas for learning one of the many European languages, with the notable exceptions of Spanish and English, which are seen, with Mandarin and Arabic, as the primary languages of commerce and economic development in the future. Universities in Scotland are working with colleagues in other European universities to devise courses that will be primarily given in English, but which will involve residence in more than one European country. We believe that such courses may well be attractive to those from overseas, but we are also conscious that European heterogeneity, enormously valued as it is within the EU, remains something of a barrier for overseas students from many (though not all) parts of the world.
Local and regional development
In what areas and how could the universities contribute more to local and regional development?
Universities can play a number of key roles in regional development:
* Excellence in the research base and its spin-off activity can attract R&D intensive companies, possibly with a manufacturing base in the region, to create their own R&D capability. Such activity can snowball and it is important that regional development agencies and universities develop shared strategies to achieve this outcome. This is one of the key points of modern economic geography, as exemplified in Richard Florida’s recent book: ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’. Companies are no longer interested primarily in tax breaks or regional subsidies: they are primarily interested in being in areas where there are substantial numbers of creative people, and many of these areas are clustered around successful universities, already major employers of creative and innovative staff.
* Universities, sometimes acting as consortia, can be very effective in providing access to technologies and know-how to indigenous SMEs. To make this effective requires a knowledgeable interface body, which should be funded through a regional development body or regional development aid.
* Masters programmes in key technologies can kick-start activity in a region, acting as a beacon for attraction of companies whose principal problem lies in manpower supply in the technology.
* Continuing investment in upgrading people's skills and regional knowledge resources to provide a well-educated and trained work-force.
What ways are there of strengthening the development of centres of knowledge bringing together at regional level the various players involved in the production and transfer of knowledge?
Engaging with industry is, inevitably, an interactive process: the simple linear models of innovation have long been discredited. Instead, universities have been active, with research councils, regional development agencies and other funders in developing forums in which not only two partnerships between HE and industry are forged, but three-way partnerships in which regional government is also active as a player. This model is more common in countries such as Germany, where the Länder have seen this as a key weapon in regional competitiveness, and is becoming the norm in countries such as Scotland, where Scottish Enterprise is becoming increasingly active in promoting such partnerships, most recently through the planned Intermediary Technology Initiative. There are also a great variety of institutions, besides the universities that are able contribute to the transfer of knowledge. Places like Research Institutes and botanical gardens already work closely with universities, and can contribute to addressing the increasing demand for higher education in Europe. Therefore, mechanisms to support the strengthening of ties between universities and other academic institutions similarly need to be developed at a regional level.
An important requirement is to develop a shared understanding of the way in which "centres of knowledge" can contribute to economic development. There are numerous research studies which demonstrate the efficacy of the research base in areas where there is R&D intensive business able to "pull" research findings out of the research base. But increasingly, there is awareness of the way in which areas that lack such "pull" (and Scotland is one), that the "push" of such ideas from the research base can be important in promoting development. It is vital, however, that this is done sustainably. A wholesale shift from basic to strategic/applied research could be damaging (e.g. as was tried in Norway) to the maintenance of innovative capacity. A creative balance between them is vital. Once a shared understanding of the process has been developed, politicians, development agencies and consortia of universities can be readily persuaded that such initiatives are in their mutual interest.
How can greater account be taken of the regional dimension in European research, education and training projects and programmes?
Subsidiarity suggests that the EU is too high level a body to be involved in fine tuning regional processes, particularly as many problems are not generic but specific to regions. However, support for the development of knowledge clusters as part of regional economic aid, particularly around major research universities, would be appropriate. The EU could also play a significant role in developing and publicising economic development data and models.
In responding to this consultation the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Commercialisation Enquiry: Final Report (1996); Devolution and Science (April 1999); The Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance (September 1999); A Framework for Economic Development (March 2000); A Science Strategy for Scotland (July 2000); Review of the supply of scientists and engineers (August 2001); Research and Knowledge Transfer in Scotland (September 2002); Review of Research Assessment (December 2002) and The Future of Higher Education (May 2003).