UNIVERSITIES: Can Europe Rise to the US Challenge? ; European Universities Are Second-Rate Compared to Their American Counterparts. Lucy Hodges Finds out Why

Article excerpt

The best universities in the world are in the USA, according to global league tables. Top of the pops comes Harvard, followed by Cambridge in the United Kingdom, seven other American universities and in 10th position, Oxford. This top 10 ranking has been calculated by Shanghai's Jiao Tong University, the first of the global league tables.

It is controversial because the criteria used are inevitably subjective. The Shanghai people rank according to Nobel prizes, researcher citations, articles published and academics' performance. Who is to say that other criteria are not just as important in judging the success of a university? However, the stark message in the published rankings is that they are dominated by America, says a new pamphlet published by the Centre for European Reform. Most of the big European countries are hardly represented at the top of the tables.

The 2005 ranking has 36 universities in the top 50, and just nine are from Europe, of which five are in the UK and one each from Switzerland, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. The authors of the pamphlet, Richard Lambert, former editor of The Financial Times and the next director general of the CBI, and Nick Butler, of BP, throw in many more statistics to show that Europe lags behind America in many subjects - computer science, high technology and economics, to name three.

Its share of Nobel prizes has declined dramatically in the last century. "These figures tell a grim story for Europe," they say. "How can it hope to become 'the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world' - when most of its best universities are so clearly in the second division?" One of the problems is that European universities are seriously underfunded. Another is that they have been run by the dead hand of the state for many decades and therefore have little autonomy and poor systems of governance.

"There is a drab uniformity across the sector: many institutions are struggling to cope with growing numbers of students and inadequate resources, delivering uninspiring teaching in dilapidated buildings," say Lambert and Butler. By comparison, the USA has fewer than 100 recognised research-intensive institutions. To be successful European universities are going to have to undertake more world-class research, which means that more money will have to be concentrated in the best places.

This is controversial stuff for many Europeans who, unlike the British, have not had to learn to live with a Research Assessment Exercise that rates university departments against one another. Lambert and Butler have a raft of recommendations. To increase funding for higher education they make another politically controversial proposal - tuition fees should be introduced across the Continent.

Some European countries have begun to introduce fees, notably the UK. And some German Lnder are preparing to charge 500 Euros a semester (1,000 Euros a year). But these have caused huge political ructions. The three biggest EU countries, France, Germany and the UK, invest the least in higher education, around 1.1 per cent of GDP The pamphlet would like to see European governments committing themselves to spending two per cent of GDP on their universities.

Chancellor Gordon Brown appeared to make the first tentative step to-wards doing this at the launch of the report in Downing Street last week when he said that he was ready "to enter the debate" on how funding in England could be increased from private and public sources.

But the most important reform that universities can make is in governance, Richard Lambert says. The case of the Netherlands illustrates this. "Forty years ago, Dutch universities had no institutional personality," he says. …