Interview with Dr. Ritzen

Interview with Dr. Ritzen

Interview with Dr. Jo Ritzen by João Mendes

What can European universities do for Europe?

Universities can offer Europe a big prize and an avoided loss.

The gain is to realize the European dream made possible by the past generations. Universities are educating the people who will transform a unified economic area in a stimulating continent. The ability to deal with technologies and foreign cultures is crucial to this dream. And this is exactly what international and innovative universities develop in people.

On the other side, a dark cloud is looming on European economy (and other industrialized economies of the world) because of the decline in births and the consequent expected loss of updated human capital. Universities have the potential to mitigate the loss attracting young talented people from oversea to study and work for a while in Europe. Of course: universities have to be(come) innovative and international to be able to attract foreigner students.

So, the question could rather be reversed: what can Europe do without European universities?

Is Europe losing the battle for talent? Where do European universities stand versus the US and Japan and emerging runner ups like China and India?

Yes, Europe is currently losing the battle for talent. Recent statistics are conclusive. In the first 40 positions of the Times Higher Education Supplement ranking, Europe (UK excluded) is represented by only 2 institutions, while North America stands at 20. In 2005, students from Europe (UK excluded) going to study in North America were roughly four times more than students moving in the opposite direction. American universities are more attractive. I take North America because it is a direct competitor: Eastern Asian universities (except the Japanese ones) are more concerned with matching the local demand than with attracting foreign students. And, by the way, they are growing really fast also in terms of quality.

You have campaigned for improvements in the university education system in Europe. How can European universities become more successful? What makes universities better?

No money, no top. A glance at the budget of high-ranked universities shows that without a conspicuous budget it is difficult (if not impossible) to be a world-class university.

Then, autonomy and accountability. I remember that, as a minister, it was difficult to give away control on higher education. But it was wise, as my later experience as President of Maastricht University tells me. Responding directly to the students and the labor market increases the attention dedicated by universities to innovation and internationalization.

At a “macro” level, we need to bypass national systems of higher education. Personally, I realized that national Governments do not feel as a priority to make of higher education a European issue. Things are now changing with the Bologna process, but not as fast as we need.

What is the contribution of your book “A Chance for European Universities” to achieve that goal?

What moved me is the ancient political dream that a serious discussion can change the course of the events. The book is part of a broader project, where debating is essential. The review and comments of many passionate and competent people have been integrated in the book while writing, and everyone is free to download and comment my book at Based on this discussion, a manifesto will be drawn at a meeting of top academics and former ministers for education on June 16th. My hope is that the book will be a good instrument for informing public opinion and decision makers, and the manifesto a good starting point to reform European higher education.

We have in the world 4.2 millions of patents with no use, and innumerous scientific articles that didn´t solve any real problem. How can we change this in order for the knowledge generated by university to reach the market and societies?

For many centuries, universities were ivory towers, standing aside from society. Von Humboldt’s motto “Freiheit der Lehre” was too often interpreted as “no accountability for research”. Academic oligarchy was too powerful. It is sometimes difficult for universities to get rid of these legacies. However, better governance (more autonomy, active involvement of stakeholders) allows universities to follow more closely the needs of society. The reform processes started decades ago in some European countries, for example in the Netherlands after the students’ protests of Amsterdam and Tilburg in the early ‘70s, show how improved governance can transform the “ivory tower” in a dynamic institution which offers teaching and research as needed by society.

Is University doing enough to reach industry? How can European universities help on promoting innovation and entrepreneurship?

At the moment European universities are, overall, not doing well in industry-university relationships. But when they are put in the right conditions, they make their part. For example, Maastricht University is now discussing with the chemical company ZDM and the Province of Limburg a joint effort to convert a part of the industrial plant of ZDM in Sittard (NL) in an industry-related research site. This would create hundreds of high-skilled jobs, and opportunities for businesses. The possibility is open because of the autonomy that is nowadays recognized to Dutch universities. However, there is still a lot of work to do to release the brakes which prevent universities to undertake ambitious projects like this.

Do you believe that the 2008/2009 crisis is an excellent opportunity for a paradigm shift all over Europe to promote excellence together with emancipation of the new Europeans in universities. Can you comment about that?

Crises highlight problems and prompt actions. The critical condition of higher education was completely disclosed by the 2008-2009 crisis. It became evident that a fully (or almost fully) public-financed university system is not sustainable, especially if the Government debt is increasing for other reasons. But also an obsolete teaching system is not sustainable, since young workers finish their studies without being enough productive for the job market. As a result, they are at risk of unemployment instead of being the most appealing employees for a company. I hope that, as problems were highlighted, actions will follow.


Historically, reforms of higher education followed economic crises or social and demographic changes: for example, the elitist structure of universities was dismantled in the ‘70s, after the boom in enrolments due to a sharp increase in the relevant-aged population and in the social demand; then they were transformed into planning, bureaucratic institutions in order to reduce costs after the oil crisis, in the ‘80s. Now the challenge is to make of them innovative institutions, in line with the needs of society. The current crisis highlighted the problems higher education is facing, in particular insufficient finance and autonomy. Now it is time for action.

All over Europe the financial support from the government is decreasing. Which is the best way to finance the new university?

Tuition fees are the first alternative source of income. Universities have to be free to charge higher tuition fees. It is fundamental to note that this is not going to harm equality of opportunity, if increases in tuition fees are accompanied by concurrent increases in the resources dedicated to poorer students through the grants and loan system. US universities derive substantial revenues from donors and relations with industrial companies. These earnings arose as a result of developing long-term relationships with private counterparts. So, in the short term it is unlikely that they will play a role in European universities financing. Then, there is now but one solution: increasing tuition fees (and support for poor students at the same time).

How will the European university be in the future, in 10 years?

My optimism tells me that the European universities of the future will be autonomous, innovative, and professional universities. That they will contribute to a vibrant Europe, where young people with ambition, creativity and talent, would feel welcome, where there is openness to new knowledge and ideas, in the arts, in the sciences and in the economy. Of course, optimism in not enough: we need immediate action to realize this dream.

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