Universities at the heart of the Europe of Knowledge

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Irish Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, and Romanian Minister for Research and Higher Education, Mihnea Costoiu

The knowledge economy and society stem from the combination of four interdependent elements: the production of knowledge, mainly through scientific research; its transmission through education and training; its dissemination through the information and communication technologies; its use in technological innovation. At the same time, new configurations of production, transmission and application of knowledge are emerging, and their effect is to involve a greater number of players, typically in an increasingly internationalised network-driven context.

The new challenges facing European universities

All over the world, but particularly in Europe, universities face an imperative need to adapt and adjust to a whole series of profound changes. These changes fall into five major categories.

Increased demand for higher education – This will continue in the years ahead, spurred on simultaneously by the objective of certain countries of increasing the number of students in higher education and by new needs stemming from lifelong learning. This increase, which Europe’s low birth rates are not expected to slow down in any great measure, will further intensify capacity saturation in the universities.

The internationalisation of education and research The momentum of internationalisation is considerably speeded up by the new information and communication technologies. The result is increased competition. Competition between universities and between countries, but also between universities and other institutions, particularly public research laboratories (where research staff are not expected to meet simultaneous teaching commitments), or private teaching institutions, often specialised and sometimes run on a profit-making basis. An increasing share of the funds allocated to the universities is distributed on a competitive basis and this means ever keener competition to attract and keep the best talent.

To develop effective and close co-operation between universities and industry Co-operation between universities and industry needs to be intensified at national and regional level, as well as geared more effectively towards innovation, the startup of new companies and, more generally, the transfer and dissemination of knowledge. From a competitiveness perspective it is vital that knowledge flows from universities into business and society. The two main mechanisms through which the knowledge and expertise possessed and developed by universities can flow directly to industry are the licensing of university intellectual property, and spin-off and startup companies .

The reorganisation of knowledge  This is to be seen in particular in two trends which pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, we have the increasing diversification and specialisation of knowledge, and the emergence of research and teaching specialities which are increasingly specific and at the cutting edge. On the other, we see the academic world having an urgent need to adapt to the interdisciplinary character of the fields opened up by society’s major problems such as sustainable development, the new medical scourges, risk management, etc. Yet the activities of the universities, particularly when it comes to teaching, tend to remain organised, and more often than not compartmentalised, within the traditional disciplinary framework.

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