European Elections Special

Old school

Europe needs to restructure its economy or it will lose ground among international competition. The best way forward is to strengthen and harmonize the Union’s higher education systems.

The recent European Parliament elections have sent shock waves through Europe. A message is clearly being sent from Europe’s people to the continent’s elites.

There are two different interpretations of this message. The most popular – at least in the media – is that the whole European project, and not just the “ever closer union”, is now at risk. Populism, and nationalism, have crept their way back into European politics. Euroscepticism is now a force to be contended with – and not just among the insular English.

The second interpretation of the message is that this is a revolt against austerity and the other neoliberal policies pursued by European governments following the 2008 crash. Their response to the financial crisis that was brought on by unregulated capitalism has not been a return to the social market consensus that served Europe so well in the past, but to embrace, as an irresistible force, the challenges of free-market globalization. So welfare states have been squeezed, inequalities have ballooned – and the people are revolting.

Not the right kind of graduates

Europe’s universities are implicated in both interpretations of the “message”. Since the signing of the Bologna declaration 15 years ago, they have embarked on a far-reaching process of harmonization and modernization. So far, similar course structures have been adopted based on the two-cycle Bachelor’s-Master’s pattern, replacing older patterns such as the Diplom in Germany. More compatible quality assurance systems have been developed. Institutions have been granted greater autonomy, although more to enhance their operational efficiency than to increase their academic freedom. The dynamism of the Bologna process owes a great deal to the faith in the wider European project. Although talk of an “ever closer union” has been avoided in the process of getting Bologna up and running, that has been its precise effect. Bologna has fostered cultural exchange among Europeans and thereby strengthened and consolidated the union.

But another strand within the Bologna process has been the desire to make Europe more competitive in an increasingly competitive global economy. The Lisbon Treaty’s goal of making Europe the most advanced knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010, always too ambitious and in any case derailed by the financial crisis since 2008, may have been abandoned. But the aspiration to make Europe more competitive remains. However, much as the electors may revolt against global free-market capitalism, no alternative is to be found in a world still dominated by the United States and the emerging economic superpowers of East Asia, notably China.

As a result, Europe’s universities, which should be at the heart of this drive towards making Europe more competitive in the global knowledge economy, have been criticized for still being too traditional – despite the success of the Bologna process. One criticism is that they have been slow to adapt to the new higher education landscape – for example, the growth of Massive Open Online Learning Courses (MOOCs), most of which have been developed in the United States. Of course, the extent to which MOOCs will succeed is not yet clear. Most MOOC participants are already highly educated, and no satisfactory business models have yet emerged.

A second criticism is that Europe’s universities are not producing the right kind of graduates to allow Europe to compete successfully in this “brave new world”. It is argued that we need more entrepreneurs and fewer bureaucrats. Universities are criticized for continuing to turn out “social” professionals despite the contraction of the welfare state. They seem reluctant to accept that traditional humanities – and critical social sciences – may have to take second place to science and engineering, technology and management.

Graduates no longer represent an elite workforce

Compelling as it sounds, this second argument also has weaknesses. First, the labor market for graduates is changing fast. Of course, the slimmed-down “market state” no longer employs such a high proportion of graduates as the “welfare state” used to, although the number employed by the para-state, in privatized industries and outsourced services, is increasing incrementally. But the large private corporations are being as thoroughly hollowed out as the state, as they offshore non-core services and primary manufacturing. Will research and development and design be next?

Secondly, the mass expansion of European higher education over the past two generations has meant that graduates no longer represent an elite workforce. Of course, there is still a super-elite, but this small proportion of graduates is now employed mainly in financial services rather than in the traditional professions. Many graduates are now self-employed or work in small and medium-sized enterprises. They are employed in the rapidly expanding creative, design and virtual industries, in many ways the most dynamic elements in the 21st-century post-industrial economy, surpassing the old state and large corporate sectors. The most highly skilled graduates are at the forefront of this transition from an industrial to a services and now a “cloud” economy.

Thirdly, the future graduate labor market will be more volatile – and more difficult to predict. So trying too hard to match graduate outputs to the employment needs of today in too much detail is probably a guarantee that they will not match those of tomorrow, and tomorrow will arrive sooner than we think. Young people may be better at predicting the future than state, or business, planners.

Graduates need more soft skills

But, alongside the hyper-technical skills that a minority of graduates will certainly need, “softer” skills such as problem-solving, teamwork and critical inquiry will become even more important in the 21st-century global economy. These are close to the skills that universities have always taught, and can be produced just as much by studying the humanities, social studies or theoretical sciences as technology and business.

And, of course, as the European elections have just reminded us, economic development and technical innovation still depend crucially on political and social consent.

Read more in this debate: Androulla Vassiliou.

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