Creating a division of elite Euro-universities?

If you take a look at the Times Higher Education world university rankings, you will see that, apart from the United Kingdom, only one European country has a university in the global top 20 – and that’s Switzerland, which isn’t even in the European Union.  This has been a source of irritation and concern to some European governments, and partly in consequence there has been a good bit of talk about the idea of creating a new set of rankings devised in Europe (and by implication likely to favour European universities).

Now another idea has been suggested by the President of Maastricht University, Dr Jo Ritzen. The journal Times Higher Education reports that he has called for ‘top European universities to be directly funded through the European Union.’ This would create a European super league that would allow Europe to ‘come higher  with fewer resources’.

Leaving aside for a moment the suggestion that fewer resources would not stand in the way of greater global recognition, I find it hard to believe that having a Euro-elite would raise the performance of Europe’s universities. Furthermore, any such league would immediately be under irresistible pressure to have a balanced membership between the member states, so that Greece, for example would have a right to have one of its universities included (none of which feature in the global top 200).

Also, it would be difficult to be confident that members of this Euro-league would be able to enjoy a coherent funding framework, that they would still find interaction with their local (national) universities to be fruitful, or that the control mechanisms put in place would not err on the size of excessive bureaucracy.

It is of course a perfectly legitimate (if somewhat risky) approach to ignore the league tables altogether. But if they are to be taken seriously, then under-performance will not easily be remedied by setting up a new grouping of universities with a new set of complex regulatory and funding arrangements. I’m not sure that Dr Ritzen’s proposal is a good idea.

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7 Comments on “Creating a division of elite Euro-universities?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    In fairness, it wouldn’t matter if the Greeks discovered time travel, they would still have difficulty in the league tables by dint of having a language that very few speak.
    If we were still hell bent on having Gaelic the active first language our universities might be slightly below the Basque.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    when I first read this on the THE, I have to say I did not dismiss it outright, I thought that there was merit in the idea of pulling European resources together at a time of economic crisis, plus the students (and staff) mobility incentives deriving can only be positive (in fact the UK should be much better at this already with the Erasmus programme) and yet, as it is often the case with European matters, (hard to admit this for a euro-phile like myself) even though the initial idea seems acceptable, the way in which to implement it presents insurmontable obstacles (some already mentioned in the post). A top league of European universities is nonsense, European funding to European universities that meet some valid criteria are useful, however we do need to get better at what we do and compete from a ‘global perspective’ not from an inward-looking one… if one were to adopt a football metaphor this is the World Cup we are playing, not the Champions!

    • In the end universities need high levels of autonomy to function most effectively, and I suspect a European superstructure wouldn’t allow that. To have a funding stream that *any* university can tap into is another matter.

  3. conorjh Says:

    . . . or they could put the crayons away, move funding towards the ERC instead of the complex multi-priority parts of the framework programmes and start giving US levels of overhead payments.

  4. Al Says:

    I wonder if existing facilities would fit the bill.
    Maybe new universitied straddling borders.
    I think there is a serious danger in allowing these international ratings distracting from doing excellently what one already does.
    How much questionable change occurs in order to move up the rankings?

  5. Aidan Says:

    @Vincent – It might also be that an Irish-speaking Ireland would be able to compete very effectively with technologically advanced countries like Israel which made a rather better fist of language revival.
    In the Basque-speaking areas of Spain the relative proportion of children being schooled through Basque has increased significantly in recent years with a consequent boost for the English-speaking abilities later on. This is because every study in the area shows that bilingual children are better at learning third and subsequent languages with no negative effect on the first languages. See here for some evidence:
    I think that the benefits of Ireland being an English speaking country are much overrated. In a world where speaking English is a hygiene factor there is not much advantage being an English speaker. On the other hand being an Irish speaker gives you access to another culture and other ways of thinking.
    I have rarely met an Irish speaker who only speaks English and Irish. On the other hand I know countless English-speaking Irish people who only speak one language.
    Is there really such an endearing argument to be a monoglot English-speaking country? After all, our forefathers were able to manage in various combinations or Irish, Latin, French, English, Yola and Scots depending on who was talking to whom.

  6. Robert Huber Says:

    You might be interested also in a new web site which offers an alternative ranking of European research institutions based on funding and networking data provided by the European Commission:

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