Universities are key to building a successful European future

On February 3, Italy chose to prioritize national stability when its government coalition re-elected Sergio Mattarella as president. Even though some say the 80-year-old will not fulfill his seven-year term, his re-election sends an important message to foreign markets and governments that Italy will stick to its plans to use billions of dollars. euros in post-Covid stimulus funding.

This funding, provided by the European Union to all Member States, represents a unique opportunity to make long-term structural reforms – but formulating and implementing this vision will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Italy’s Particular Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) has allocated an unprecedented budget for higher education and research: nearly €20bn (£16.7bn). We must ensure that we can turn it into effective, concrete and practical action, whatever the results of the next legislative elections (which must take place before next June). A steady hand will be needed.

The same is true for Europe as a whole. Geopolitically wedged between Russia and the United States and far behind China’s unattainable rate of economic growth, the continent must affirm a shared identity and implement a sustainable socio-economic vision. Diplomats are already working on closer collaboration on defence, and eurozone countries have taken a common stance on investing in energy savings and other climate change mitigation programs.

It is in this context that Margaritis Schinas, European Commissioner responsible for promoting the European way of life, and Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner responsible for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, announced a European strategy for universities last month.

Europe has great potential in education and research. It is home to nearly 5,000 higher education establishments, 17.5 million higher education students, 1.35 million higher education teachers and 1.17 million researchers. But all this gray matter could be mobilized more effectively through joint plans, synergies and combined efforts.

In September 2017, in his famous Sorbonne speech, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed to create at least 20 “European universities” straddling borders by 2024 – and, beyond that, to create “a network of ‘universities across Europe’.

The EU university strategy extends the target to 60 institutions by mid-2024, encompassing 500 existing universities across the continent. More than 40 have already been created.

The French presidency of the Council of the European Union, which runs until June, also plans to convene a “European academy”, bringing together a hundred European intellectuals from all over the continent “to enlighten the European debate”.

A six-month EU presidency is not enough to recreate a European identity or forge a real academy without borders. For example, we cannot ignore the inequality of European budgets; Italy devotes 1.4% of its GDP to research compared to 2.2% for France and 3.1% for Germany. How to deal with this disparity?

However, Covid-19 has provided us with a positive shock. It has accelerated an ongoing process of unification in higher education and reinforced our common values ​​as a single European cultural entity. It also gave us an unexpected opportunity to formulate a strong European higher education policy that will be self-sufficient even when it is not a political priority.

At the heart of Europe’s educational identity are values ​​such as the importance of mutual relationships, the development of talents, the mobility of people and ideas, and the promotion of complex thinking and critical attitudes. They are also broader European values. This is why universities should not be restructured exclusively from the inside post-Covid; they should be seen as nodes in a larger pan-continental social network.

Our priority should be to strengthen strategic partnerships and boost EU cohesion on game-changing topics such as digital transformation, sustainable development, neuroscience and biotechnology. Research should be seen as a key driver of change when we talk about artificial intelligence, big data or space technologies.

Of course, this improved collaboration has already happened from the bottom up. Over the past decade, leading universities across the continent have forged alliances, mobility programs and collaborative research. These relationships have been instrumental in combating growing nationalism and divisive politics.

However, it is also undeniable that the strength and speed of the socio-economic impact of these initiatives could be enhanced by a firm political consensus among Member States that collaboration is indeed the way forward.

European universities are on a path of ever greater collaboration, but politicians must do their best to keep this path safe.

Ferruccio Resta is rector of the Politecnico di Milano.

Helen D. Jessen