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In Europe, universities struggle to compete and adapt

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2006


In an ancient olive grove here, students of Plato's Academy once debated philosophy in the shadow of the Acropolis. At today's Greek universities, however, there has been little time for contemplation amid the clang of student protests and the acrid smell of tear gas.

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There were few exams as the Greek university term ended this year. Instead, student protesters occupied more than 400 universities and technical schools and took to the streets with bricks and Molotov cocktails to protest proposed reforms to Greece's higher education system.

"This is the first step toward privatization," insisted student protester Niki Argiry, who studies Greek philology at the University of Athens. "They want to do it American-style, [so] you have to pay, and it's not free anymore."

No one is yet suggesting that Greek students pay tuition, but the government has proposed changes that would limit the number of years students can stay in school, reduce book subsidies, and soften a historical ban on police entering university grounds.

The tear gas-drenched protests that racked Greece during the past month reflect a broader crisis in higher education across the continent. Beleaguered by a lack of funding, rising numbers of students, and excessive state control, Europe's universities (mostly low-cost or free and funded by the government) are struggling to compete. But many countries are finding reform is not easy to implement – though they agree it is needed.

"Over time, they will have to change" to compete, says Richard Lambert, director general of the Confederation of British Industry and author of a new report on the state of European higher education for the Center for European Reform.

A few countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, recently implemented broad reforms, giving universities more autonomy and boosting their funding. European nations are working to standardize degrees across the continent, to ease the movement of knowledge and workers.

But as a whole, European universities have stagnated and now lag behind American universities by almost every measure – from funding to achievements in research to graduation rates.

According to one ranking of international universities (Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, which looked at research success), only two European universities – Oxford and Cambridge in England – cracked the Top 20. Seventeen of the top 20 were in the United States.

There are other signs, too, that Europe is falling behind in the knowledge industry. Between 1901 and 1950, 73 percent of Nobel Prize-winners lived in what is now the European Union. Between 1995 and 2004, European-based academics won just 19 percent of the prestigious awards. And European nations devote less than 2 percent of their GDP to research and development, compared with 2.6 percent in the US and 3.2 percent in Japan.

Although a smaller percentage of Europeans complete higher education than Americans do – 21 percent of the working population compared with 38 percent in the US – European grads have a harder time finding jobs than their American counterparts. According to the EU, among graduates ages 20 to 24, 12.3 percent of Europeans are unemployed, compared with only 1.6 percent of Americans.

One reason, says Krzysztof Powlowski, founder of Wyzsza Szkola Biznesu/National-Louis University, a private university in Poland modeled on a US college, is that traditional European universities pay little attention to the practicality of degrees or the quality of graduates.

"Part of academia is thinking that the classical model of universities is still important and right," he says, referring to the traditional European model of large public universities that offer classic degrees. "But many academics ... see the necessity for change because the distance between the top universities in the USA and the top universities in Europe is still growing."