John Kelly: European universities don't deserve this slur

In an extraordinary and unusual initiative the European Commission has criticised European universities and told them how to get their house in order. It has published its views in advance of the European Summit of Higher Education Ministers being held today in Berlin. Accusing European universities of not being globally competitive "even though they produce high quality scientific publications", the document, "The Role of the Universities in the Europe of Knowledge", says Europe's institutions offer students a less attractive environment than North American universities, and get fewer top-level students and a smaller proportion of researchers. Moreover, they have a high drop-out rate, 40 per cent on average. Although the European Commission comments favourably on the Erasmus student exchange programme, it notes elsewhere that student mobility is still marginal in Europe.

It says European universities do not have well-developed structures for managing research results, and puts the blame for this on the lack of familiarity of university staff with economic realities. Our universities fall far behind those in the USA and Japan in their links with industry, it adds. Fewer companies are set up in Europe by university researchers and those that are grow less quickly and last less long. Finally, it claims that the European research environment is less attractive, working conditions not as good, the financial benefits from research smaller and career prospects poorer - than the USA, it is presumed.

The document is concerned about the global status of European universities and asks how conditions can be created in which universities can excel. Excellence does not grow overnight, it says. The Commission clearly does not think that excellence exists in any large measure in European universities. "European universities have gone through the second half of the 20th century without really calling into question the role or the nature of what they should be contributing to society," it concludes.

So it appears the Commission doesn't have much confidence in the scientific research at European universities. It believes their research output is not internationally competitive, their programmes unattractive to top-class students, that they have no vision of their role in contemporary society and are managed so badly by academics that outside professional managers should be brought in.

This is an extraordinary document indeed. Scant value is put on the role of universities in education. The primary function of a university is surely the education of students, not research. Research is important, indeed vital, in so far as it contributes to the education of students, but the impact universities have on society is arguably greater from their graduates than from their research. Excellence in industrial research and cultural development comes from the creative minds of graduates, shaped in their student years. It is our graduates who are the immediate architects of the future of Europe. And the prime domain of the university world is fundamental or basic research - so it is not surprising that the direct impact of universities on industrial innovation is low.

This document is staggering in its criticism of European universities and its adulation of American ones. While European universities are not perfect, they can certainly hold their own with universities anywhere and it is absurd to question their excellence. As a traveller to the USA and a visiting professor in universities there, I acknowledge that they have some of the best institutions in the world. But they also have some of the worst.

The report is also extraordinary for its sweeping and inaccurate statements. The average student drop-out rate in European universities is certainly not 40 per cent, or anywhere near it. The Erasmus exchange programme is ahead of anything in the world and is the envy of US students. And European universities have devoted enormous energy in recent years to thinking about their role in modern society. One wonders what hole in the ground the authors of this document have been living in.

The writer was dean of engineering and registrar at University College Dublin. He is now a member of the steering committee of the European University Association's evaluation programme