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European Universities

November 22, 2006

An AP story, picked up yesterday by CNN, addressed a topic that’s arisen a few times here (one, two): changes at European universities. Here are some excerpts from the CNN piece, interspersed with commentary:

– “Change is rattling Europe’s temples of learning. Resistance remains fierce, driven by fears of the ‘Americanization’ — or commercialization — of higher education. But economic realities are overpowering those who maintain that universities should impart universal knowledge, not pave the way to a job. Too many European graduates are getting welfare checks instead of paychecks.”

TL: Fears about Americanization and commercialization are legitimate, but the last line is asinine. Why the deliberate and unsubstantiated swipe at European culture? No statistics about college graduates and welfare are included in the article.

– “Europe’s universities don’t provide the skills and research needed to help the continent prosper and compete with rapidly growing economies in Asia and elsewhere, according to international rankings, school presidents, students and European Union officials.”

TL: Is it the universities place to provide “skills?” Higher education should produce generally intelligent citizenry, not machinists or computer programmers. Is it really a university’s job to help with the economy?

– “Germany, France and Italy spend just 1.1 percent of gross domestic product on higher education, nearly all of that from state funds, says the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S. spends 2.6 percent — with private endowments funding the majority.”

TL: I wonder how much of America’s 2.6 percent is wrapped up in the culture of college athletics?

– “Students receive little guidance. European college dropout rates average 40 percent. One survey found that more than a third of adults in the EU cannot perform basic computer tasks such as using a mouse to access an Internet site or working with a word-processing program.”

TL: How does a survey about adults generally have anything to do with recent college performance? Couldn’t it be the case that there is just an old/young split on computer literacy? What’s the drop-out rate here in the U.S.?

– “The head of France’s main employers union, Laurence Parisot, says French universities are ‘the shame of our nation.’ Their dire state is becoming a campaign issue in next spring’s election. Presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist, says the university system should be ‘dynamited.’ On the right, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for a 50 percent increase in funding for higher education over five years. ‘It’s a miracle that France is still the world’s fifth largest (economic) power, closely tailed by China, considering its weak investment in higher education. Can this continue?’ the president of the Sorbonne, Jean-Robert Pitte, wrote in a book this year called Youth — They’re Lying to You!

TL: This is surprising to me. I had no idea that France itself was concerned with its higher education system. Granted Strauss-Kahn is a politician, so his/her concerns can be taken with a grain of salt. But Jean-Robert Pitte’s comments add legitimacy to the article’s point.

– “Most European universities are public, and most charge no tuition, just small fees. Parisian universities, for example, charge $125 to $250 a year, and that is covered for low-income students with one-time student stipends. Critics contend the system leaves education short of funds.”

TL: But there has to be some balance between these low charges (realizing that Euro is at a higher exchange rate with the dollar) and the high tuition prices of American universities. Americanizing tuition rates should not be the general solution.

– “But opponents of market-oriented reforms being proposed across Europe worry that students will become commodities for profit-centered universities and fear that disciplines with limited market value will die out.”

TL: I see the fear of profit-centered universities as legitimate, but an unrealized fear – left unarticulated in this statement – is this: the student seeing his or herself strictly as a consumer. And disciplines with limited market value (i.e. history, philosophy, literature) are generally underfunded here in the U.S.

– “Only two European universities made it in the top 20 of the Academic Ranking of World Universities, a list compiled by researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and based largely on the number of Nobel and Fields prizes by staff and alumni and publications in leading journals. Both European institutions were in Britain — Oxford and Cambridge. One was in Japan — Tokyo University — and all the rest in the top 20 were in the United States, led by Harvard, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and MIT.”

TL: No substantial comment here, but I thought the numbers of interest.

– “Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD education directorate, said change is unavoidable for Europe’s academics. ‘The world is indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice,’ he said. ‘Success will go to those individuals and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain, and open to change.'”

TL: Schleicher is essentially correct, but universities with great traditions will find it easier to correct wrongs, reform, and attract students again. Name recognition and quality will trump quality with no name recognition every time. It’s easier to re-market a University of Paris, recovering from dire straits, than the University of North Dakota. – TL


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