The Future Of European Universities


In the midst of the pandemic, Europe’s universities are looking ahead to define their priorities for the next 10 years. Europe and the world are facing immense challenges: finding a sustainable equilibrium between ecological, economic and social concerns, the digital transition and (geo)political uncertainty, to name some of the most important ones.

We are at a tipping point, a time of transformation for society and universities; it is important to take a step back and reflect about the future strategically.

How do we want Europe’s universities to look in 10 years’ time? What should be their role in society and how should their missions evolve? What are the core values and key conditions we need to retain?

These are some of the key questions that the European University Association (EUA) reflected upon throughout 2020 in a major consultation process together with more than 100 experts and visionaries from its membership and a wide range of external stakeholders.

The result is Universities Without Walls: A vision for 2030. It’s a vision by the sector and for the sector, offering inspiration and guidance to university leaders and academic communities. It’s a call to strengthen the role of universities in society and an invitation to all stakeholders to join forces for deeper and more impactful collaboration.

At the heart of this vision stand openness and engagement based on the academic core values of respect for knowledge and evidence, critical thinking and open debate, scientific rigour, integrity and ethics, with academic freedom and institutional autonomy as essential components.

The universities of the future will be open, transformative and transnational, building partnerships with a wide range of actors locally and internationally. Their nature and structure will be hybrid, combining physical and virtual spaces in a holistic learning and research environment that accommodates the needs of a diverse university community.

Striving for sustainability will be another key feature of Europe’s universities in 2030 as envisioned by EUA. Universities will make sustainability an integral part of their missions of learning and teaching, research, innovation and culture.

Interdisciplinarity will be an important tool to address the sustainability challenge, based on a profound command of disciplinary knowledge, as well as openness and creativity towards challenge-based approaches, new ways of thinking and co-creating with partners. Diversity and social cohesion are key elements of sustainability and Europe’s universities will work towards those in support of Europe’s open, pluralistic and democratic societies.

To do so, Europe needs strong, autonomous and accountable universities with the capacity to act strategically and strive for continuous improvement. An open and trust-based relationship with society is a key condition that enables universities to play their role and fulfil their missions free from undue interference.

Universities can and will play a major role in Europe’s recovery, and the opportunities for impact on society as a whole are enormous. In order to take these opportunities, universities need to be empowered to make the vision a reality. This will require a concerted effort from all stakeholders – universities themselves, funding bodies, policy-makers, quality assurance agencies and others. The concrete actions do not lie with one actor or the other; achieving the goal necessitates working together.

The basic framework conditions are institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Universities must be able to take and implement strategic decisions. This includes, for example, that they have sufficient leeway to decide how to spend their funds, how they are organised internally or how they manage programmes. Students and researchers must be able to produce knowledge within the limits of ethics and integrity, not the limits set by political ideologies.

As universities play an increasingly important role in society, they are exposed to different forms of regulation. Rules on copyright and data can influence the ability to implement ‘open science’; immigration rules and taxation can hamper international cooperation. This needs to be taken into consideration by those making the rules.

The multilateral structures in Europe, the European Union and the Bologna Process remain important for universities to engage across borders and have the possibility as stakeholders to be part of policy development.

Funding remains a major concern. Despite the crisis, major investments will be needed to achieve the vision. Core funding must remain sufficient, while further investments should be made both in physical and digital infrastructure.

Universities themselves will need to focus on professionalisation. Leadership should be inclusive and transparent, and leaders must be prepared to take up their roles. Likewise, professionalisation of staff will continue to be important to support key goals like equity and diversity or open data management.

In terms of concrete steps forward, the reform of academic careers is high on the agenda, and many see this as a key area for moving forward in other fields. The assessment of academic careers must correspond to the breadth of university activities, and academics must be recognised for impact much beyond their written production as measured by bibliometric indicators. It is also central that the academic career becomes less precarious in order to make it an attractive life choice.

Interdisciplinarity is another priority area, particularly for meeting the sustainability challenge. It can be promoted through the same actions already mentioned: recognition in academic assessment, flexible accreditation of programmes (and giving universities the autonomy to do this) and making interdisciplinarity part of academic staff development.

Universities Without Walls are exactly about this: the academic community reaching out and opening the doors to the world, ready to learn from others, but standing firm on core values.

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