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We need to get the spirit – the Weltgeist – back into Europe and European universities, argues Lykke Friis, Prorector for Education at the University of Copenhagen
“The year 1989 was one of the best in European history”, British historian Timothy Garton Ash declared triumphantly in an essay, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However Ash sighed, 1989 “may also have been the last occasion – at least for a long time – when world history was made in Europe. Today, world history is made elsewhere”. Speaking in strictly economic terms, he seems to be spot on. According to the International Monetary Fund, 90 percent of growth will be generated outside Europe this year.
As if Ash wanted to visit the ultimate crime scene, he embarked on a stroll in Berlin, through Brandenburg Gate, down Unter den Linden where he finally made a halt at the mother of all modern universities: The Humboldt University of Berlin. There he found, not the spirit which fostered great minds like Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Planck or Heisenberg and conveyed the wonders of research and education to the benefit of the general public, but something akin to “the Detroit of science”. The deserted student cafe on the backside of the main building still carried the promising name ‘Café Weltgeist’, but the spirit itself had moved on, Ash observed.
A quick glance at university rankings, however imperfect these statistical constructs may seem, can attest to the fact that the world history of science is mainly made outside continental Europe these days. Apart from the alma mater of Ash, Oxford, and the likes from the British Isles, Europe is nowhere near the top of the charts. It is Ivy League and Pax Americana all over. At the latest ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ published in August, ETH Zürich at number 20 in the world, Copenhagen at 35 and Paris – Pierre and Marie Curie at 36 are the poor remnants of past European academic glory.
Notwithstanding the success of our American colleagues, saving the academic spirit from extinction is not only a European worry but a matter which should concern the whole western world. That’s the candid pitch offered in an alarmist report issued by the UK’s Institute of Public Policy Research. The report, a rare page-turner in its genre with the cliff-hanger title ‘An Avalanche is Coming’, claims that snow piles are threatening to bury the old school, ‘red brick’ university. The threat accumulated over our heads consists mainly of cheap online alternatives to traditional classroom teaching and brain competition from Asia.
I am reluctant to buy this disaster scenario without due hesitation. Let’s discuss the IT transformations first. In the last decades, the Internet has already flip-flopped the realms of media, travel and banking – from Facebook, Netflix and Airbnb to Internet savings accounts. Newspapers, TV-channels, hotels and your local bank clerk smiling to you at the counter are all struggling to stay on their feet. In a simple analysis of extrapolation, the newfangled IT-forces are destined to hit the universities. According to the forecast of one of the e-uni pioneers Stephen Thrun, a Stanford professor of artificial intelligence, fifty years from now there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.
…the main thrust of MOOC-skepticism falls within the category of those intangible human attributes which defy quantification: The atmosphere in the real-time auditorium, facial expressions, moods, gestures which cannot be transmitted by gadgets and sensed on screens
The nickname is MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) but the acronym is disputed since not all courses are open and free to everyone. However, after it really took off in 2012 as a popular mode of learning, it has indeed become a massive industry with more than six millions enrolled thus far, primarily within the virtual premises of three big providers: Coursera, Udacity and edX. Thomas L. Friedman, the ‘guru’ columnist of the New York Times, is thrilled by the ‘revolutionary potential’ of MOOCs to disseminate universal education at low cost. Even faraway villages in Egypt, he ponders, could have access to the best teaching in the world, transmitted by way of high-speed satellite internet access, some computers and subtitles in Arabic.
Other MOOC-figures are less flattering. As little as ten percent of the students complete their course, and according to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, preparation and execution is pretty time-consuming for professors who on average spend over 100 hours getting the gear ready and recording videos and after launch 8-10 hours a week which involves responding to the vast number of online queries from students.
But the main thrust of MOOC-skepticism falls within the category of those intangible human attributes which defy quantification: The atmosphere in the real-time auditorium, facial expressions, moods, gestures which cannot be transmitted by gadgets and sensed on screens. David Bromwich, a Yale professor of English, even elevates online teaching to the classic sci-fi nightmare: “The great social calamity of our time is that people are being replaced by machines”.
…it may be misleading to reproduce the mutually exclusive dichotomy of ‘brain drain’ / ‘brain gain’, since it infers that either Copenhagen or Beijing will lose their best people from interaction. Rather, what often occurs is ‘brain circulation’
Bromwich however also seems to accept the “middle of the road” approach of choosing “to take the help” IT offers, “use it and not let it use us”. This is precisely the pragmatic solution many universities, including my own, have opted for by placing a few eggs in this new basket. More than 100 universities, including a range of household names like Yale and Princeton, have joined the ranks of Coursera, without leaving the old business model and ‘red brick’ structures which have served them well for centuries. It would certainly also be odd if universities failed to explore prudent ways of reaching out to the smartphone generations through their preferred media.
The other avalanche looming over the old universities of the West stems from those corners of the globe free from crippling austerity and endowed with enough financial muscle to ensure remarkable peaks in public expenditure, countries like China, South Korea, Singapore and India. In the last decade, China has increased its investments in research by 500 percent, and in the Beijing region research amounts to 5,5 percent of the regional GDP.
Former Yale President Richard Levin had a piece in Foreign Affairs which serves to modify the perception of Asian universities as a menace to western academic hegemony. By contrast, we should strongly welcome the fact that more countries now have the ability to offer excellent university education, not least because the intrinsic values of academic discourse will eventually make these emerging economies more hospitable to the virtues of liberal democracy.
Levin also reminds us that it takes a long time to create a world-class university. Harvard and Yale used centuries to reach the level of Oxford and Cambridge and the only Asian university which has managed to climb the tables and squeeze into top-25 is Tokyo which was established in 1877. Furthermore, when we discuss the impact of Asian universities, it may be misleading to reproduce the mutually exclusive dichotomy of ‘brain drain’ / ‘brain gain’, since it infers that either Copenhagen or Beijing will lose their best people from interaction. Rather, what often occurs is ‘brain circulation’ whereby students and researchers float back and forth between countries and continents to the advantage of all universities on their journey. Just consider how the University of Copenhagen has benefitted in this case: Years ago, the young Chinese geneticist Wang Jun came to Denmark on a state research grant but it was not a permanent loss to China. He went back to China after some years, but it was not a permanent loss to Denmark either. Wang rose to become head of the world’s largest facility conducting genetic sequencing, Beijing Genomics Institute, which recently opened its European office in Copenhagen and now young PhDs and researchers from Beijing and Copenhagen travel back and forth on exchange.
…another Twain-quote may be more in place to describe the current atmosphere at universities in Europe, his definition of education as “the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty”.
Finally, as Levin points out, it may be that European politicians worry that Asia is training more engineers, but in Asia they worry that their students are deprived the sense of innovation instrumental for long-term economic prosperity if too much emphasis is placed on passive listening, rote learning and content divorced from meaning, as opposed to independent and critical thinking where it is accepted, and even expected, that students challenge one another and the authority of the professor.
So in response to the avalanche theory, I feel inclined to parrot Mark Twain and say that reports on the imminent death of the university – caused by IT and Asia – seem slightly exaggerated. However, another Twain-quote may be more in place to describe the current atmosphere at universities in Europe, his definition of education as “the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty”. The economic situation is still quite miserable and uncertain and our chief public sponsors are on retreat. One may even suggest that insufficient funding in Europe constitutes a potentially destructive avalanche in its own right.
In Britain, subsidies are falling and tuition fees rising. In Finland, universities were deprived 15 percent of their budget, almost overnight. And universities in Denmark, which in the last 15 years have been protected by the consensus of various governments that knowledge is key to prosperity, have now been notified by the new government that they will have to slice two per cent a year of study programmes in the next four years. Similar stories of decline in academic funding may be found in most other European countries.
At the European level, the Juncker Commission has also been backpedaling. Horizon 2020 has often been depicted as the Promised Land of research funding, flowing with milk and honey. But once in office, the incumbent Commission proposed to transfer some EUR 2,7 billion from Horizon to support the ‘Juncker plan’ which catered to a more classic, Keynesian immediate logic of spending money on infrastructure projects in order to kick-start an ‘Industrial Renaissance for Europe’. Initially, the “Juncker plan” received the support of governments in the Council before it was met by a wave of criticism and letters of protest from the German, French, Dutch and UK rectors’ conferences, a group of Nobel laureates and the prestigious Royal Society. In April, a fifty man strong brain platoon of UK Vice-chancellors joined forces on a protest trip to Brussels.
The newborn country, inhabited only by MIT alumnis scattered across the globe, would become the 17th richest country in the world overnight.
When the ‘Juncker plan’ reached a fairly hostile European Parliament, a compromise had to be crafted. Some EUR 500 million less were diverted away from the Horizon programme, thus saving the bulk of those initiatives tailored to support excellence in research, notably the European Research Council. As it happens, the negotiation process also revealed a Northwest – Southeast divide in the European map of universities in so far as the ruling criteria of quality and excellence have served to reproduce Cambridge, Amsterdam and Copenhagen as grant recipients rather than Sofia, Bratislava and Bucharest. Consequently, also kept from Horizon-cuts was the initiative called ‘Spreading excellence’ which effectively sends some of the funds into the hands of those European universities not blessed with as many bright stars of science.
The big question is how we can revitalize Europe’s universities and bring back the vanished Weltgeist that will enable us to challenge the American supremacy and keep pace with the emerging contenders from Asia and elsewhere.
First, it must be recognised that universities are major vehicles of affluence in society and therefore policy-makers at national and European level should not perceive them as draining expenses, but as necessary investments. One of the most striking pieces of statistical evidence in recent years was offered by the Kauffman Foundation when they – for the sake of the argument – suggested the bizarre idea that the prestigious tech university MIT in the vicinity of Boston would follow the secessionist dream of Scotland or Kosovo and declare itself an independent and sovereign state thus leaving the United States of America. The newborn country, inhabited only by MIT alumnis scattered across the globe, would become the 17th richest country in the world overnight.
Hence, both the EU and Member States should think twice before they slash research and education in order to finance the day-to-day needs of the welfare state, however benevolent the purpose: health care, the elderly and those who have lost footing in the crisis. Without the horsepower of research and education they risk being stuck in a traffic jam of carts in front of horses – and nobody to pull them away. Sometimes politicians say universities are strong enough to make their own living because they have become skillful at fundraising, attracting funds from private foundations and the EU, but they seem to forget the costs of fundraising: it entails an unwise division of labour: researchers should research or teach, and not get lost in lengthy applications. Furthermore, grants subject to competition come with the price label of co-financing, often 50 percent, which have to be taken from the universities’ core assets.
…more often than not, great scientific endeavors are made by great researchers who enjoy stable, long-term funding and the freedom to conduct pure, basic research with little regard to actual application.
Secondly, when allocating research grants, policy-makers should respect the long-term and unpredictable nature of science. Especially during hard times, it is quite understandable that politicians are keen to direct funds to the areas they deem relevant for business and society. But who knows where the world is going? Take the last 10 years. Who would have predicted that we now have two maps of Europe, one where Crimea belongs to the Ukraine and one where it is part of Russia? And who would have predicted that Facebook is the world’s largest news agency and Airbnb a better business than most hotels?
In the 1930s, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned the smartest people in the country and established a commission mandated to predict which technologies would be the most significant in the future. Not a single prediction turned out to be correct and the commission failed to mention nuclear energy, the laser, the computer, satellite communication and GPS, radar and sonar, the Internet, mobile phones, antibiotics, the contraceptive pill and the structure of the DNA – to mention just a few big ones.
Basically, I don’t think we are much better today making projections about the future. Indeed, the only thing I dare to predict is that predictions in science will be difficult to make. But what we can say with some confidence is that world-class universities in America or the UK are just that because they always aim for excellence. And more often than not, great scientific endeavors are made by great researchers who enjoy stable, long-term funding and the freedom to conduct pure, basic research with little regard to actual application. This strategy may also prove lucrative in the long haul. The Russell Group, the highflying club of UK’s top research universities, has shown that the discoveries which make the biggest contribution economically tend to result from fundamental research.
What we should do is to restore the legitimacy and meritocracy of teaching by rewarding those who do it well.
Third and finally, we should promote teaching. In the current state of affairs, research achievements are imperative to advancement and recognition at the university whereas teaching doesn’t really count as a career driver. What we get is a “retreat from the classroom”, professors who perceive a student in the hallway as a “speed bump” who only will slow him down on the way to the next peer-reviewed article or research grant. This research biased behavior is detrimental to the original idea of university as presented by Wilhelm von Humboldt – yes, the founding father of the university professor Ash paid a visit in Berlin – an institution where research and education join forces to serve the commonweal.
What we should do is to restore the legitimacy and meritocracy of teaching by rewarding those who do it well. And by teaching I don’t just mean the vocal performance in the classroom but the more comprehensive concept of interaction which comprises both formal feedback on assignments and the informal encounters with the student in the corridor.
There are other methods of enhancing education. As mentioned, we should not evade technology but apply it where it makes sense – and can be sensed. And in this age when more people than ever are getting a university degree we should do the simple math and ask if it is serves the overall quality of study programmes if the ratio of professors versus students entails too few of the former and too many of the latter.
If we do a good job, we will perhaps be able to create a university like the one in Berkeley California. Some years ago they conducted a survey in which they asked their faculty researchers why they had chosen Berkeley as a workplace. The answer with most ‘hits’ was not the sunny weather or the size of the paycheck, nor the prestige of the professorship, but the privilege of spending time with some very bright young people – the students. That’s the spirit – the Weltgeist – we need back in Europe.
See notes and references to this article in fact box upper right.
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