Interview: ‘Business needs incentives to work with universities’

In order to bridge the gap between academia and industry, universities need to be encouraged to open up to business and vice-versa, argues Professor Sylvain Kahn in an interview with

If Europe wants to be renouned for its highly performing R&D universities producing lots of patents, which create new activities, markets and jobs, European universities need to be given more resources, in particular private money, argues Sylvain Kahn, History Professor at Sciences Po (Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris) and co-author of a recently published book entitled Les universités sont-elles solubles dans la mondialisation?, [Hachette Littératures] which examines the impact and consequences of globalisation on European universities.

Commenting on the need for European university reform, Sylvain Kahn says that political pressure and important tax incentives are needed for the business community to take an interest in working with universities and to bridge the gap between industry and academia.

Is European university reform necessary?

It depends on what kind of reform you do. The project of the European Institute of Technology, for example, is not a good project to face globalisation challenges. It means that Europe would make the choice of identifying a very small group of universities of excellence, which is of course necessary, but then we would not care about the university community as a whole. We would separate exellence and cohesion.

In addition, we need to complete the European higher-education area. The Bologna process was the first step, building a coherent, common-standard, European higher-education structure – but it is not enough anymore. We now need our higher education institutions to develop international levels of excellence. 

Universities are said to be ‘over-regulated’ and the Commission proposes increasing universities’ autonomy and accountability. Do you agree? 

More autonomy is necessary and, accordingly, more accountability. However, money is not enough. To be completely autonomous, universities need to be able to handle their money as they wish. 

Do you think that lack of differentiation between EU universities is a problem, as identified by those calling for university reform?

Specialisation is good if it means encouraging already excellent faculties to become even better, at international level. But it is not good if it means that a university would need to abandon other faculties to focus its resources to just one. I think that ‘specialised universities’ is a bureaucratic idea. If we want to encourage research on, for example, biology, it does not mean that the university needs to switch to teaching biology only. We can simply support the specific faculty in the university. We must not forget that complete universities are a result of a long history and you can’t change things overnight by a bureaucratic decision.

In addition, an excellent department in a university is good for other departments too. Even in the US, it is like that. When we talk about university communities, it is also important to keep in mind that when one department is successful and makes a profit, the profits are divided between the whole university. 

Should universities open up more to the business community? 

That is of course a very good aim, but then the problem is that the business community is not interested in getting involved with universities. Business wants, happily, to employ the researchers formed by universities at the companies, but they don’t want to get financially involved with universities. This is typically European.


There are historical and economic and even cultural and political reasons for this, but this is the truth. In a nutshell, you can say that the business community does not trust university communities (however, this is not the same in Italy, France and Finland) and thinks that universities are not very useful in a sense that they are often interested only in ‘pure’ research.

We should look at the long history. At the beginning, for example in Spain, the universities were ruled by the church – and that makes naturally for two very different types of communities.

The gap between industry and academia, has, however, been identified as one of the main problems hampering European innovation and several EU initiatives currently aim to bridging this divide. If you say that business is not interested, are the EU efforts in vain? 

I don’t want to say that. I just find it amazing that the EU, on this topic, asks only the universities to make an effort. Is there any Communication in which the Commission asks the business community to go to universities? 

The divorce between business and university communities is more true in Catholic countries than in protestant countries. In the United States, this is not an issue, as the business communities are IN the universities. R&D is, in the US, conducted in universities. In Europe the R&D is done in the company labs. 

If we want to solve this problem in Europe, we have to remember that there are two partners. If the Commission wants to bring universities and business closer, it has to also put pressure on business. 

Then how can we get business interested in universities? 

We need political pressure for that, and serious tax incentives. For example, in France there are good tax incentives for mécénat [sponsoring] in arts. A company is, for example, encouraged to invest in and sponsor arts, and in return it gets tax reductions as well as social recognition. Why are we not doing that for universities and education? Why not a little bit less for arts and a bit more for universities? In the US, this is the way it happens. 

More private money for universities then?

Saying that there should not be any private money in universities is the way to make them very poor. When all other institutions are poor, the rare ones financed by private money will keep on going. If we won’t do anything, there’ll soon be a limited club of well-performing, rich universities, while the others become ever poorer. 

We show in our book that those who say that we need to be wary of the American university model, don’t know the US universities at all. Second, by saying this, they refuse to adopt what is interesting  in the US universities (naturally, not copy everything) and will lead Europe into a situation corresponding to the worst-case liberal scenario rejected by all anti-Americans. 

Everybody says it is up to the states or regional authorities to take care of [finance] education. European student unions protest every time they hear calls for introduction of student fees, and companies refuse to pay for education as well. Nobody wants to pay for education, whereas I think that it is very important to increase the resources for universities – both the public administration and the non-public sector need to make a big effort in this respect. We propose in our book a kind of EU-funded ‘Marshall plan’ for European universities. It is important that member states, and EU institutions together decide to make universities and research laboratories a real priority for the next 15 years. 

What do you think about universities’ participation in the poles of excellence? 

I’m sure that poles of excellences are a good idea. Europe needs regional planning – the poles of excellence would be something at international level. We need 30-40 of them. But we can’t just put all our efforts into those; It is of utmost importance to take care of the other 3,950 higher education institutes as well. Furthermore, we must not do anything starting from zero. It won’t work. Basis for these poles exist already, we just need to identify them. 

Having said that, it is important to continue having universities that are not poles of excellence, because a university serves many purposes. We need universities to educate engineers and other workers – and that is something we already do very well here in Europe, even better than the United States. This is something to be preserved. 

However, these educated people often leave Europe because they don’t have enough work here. And this is because Europe is missing out the third industrial revolution, currently under way. If we had a great number of highly performing R&D universities producing lots of patents, we could create new activities, markets and jobs – even for highly educated people.

Does Europe need to attract foreign brains?

There is no science without international exchanges. We need to attract young students and researchers. If we don’t meet and work together, for example, with the Chinese, they will never share their knowledge with us. 

Today, nothing attracts foreign students to European universities. To change this, our universities need more and better libraries. There are far too many universities which have libraries that do not correspond to international standards – they don’t have enough books, nor enough copies of each book. In addition, libraries close early in the evening. 

Europe also needs more involved teachers (better paid) and proper housing for students, as in many European cities the student housing is very far from the campus and is very expensive. There are not these costs of ‘concrete’ problems in North America. 

A further remark is that the universities that are good and succeed are those with a real campus. You can live and work there and have jobs for students. In Portugal, Italy, France and Germany, for example, you don’t have this campus concept.

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