Turk: Universities must be able to reward excellence

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Governments should stop promoting average universities in the name of egalitarianism and start rewarding true excellence even if that means creating unpopular differences between the very best and average professors and students, argues Žiga Turk, the Slovenian minister for growth, in an interview with euractiv.com. 

Žiga Turk is the Slovenian minister for growth. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

You have said that governments are not the best partners in creating excellent universities. Is more cooperation with business the way to excellence? 

I believe that governments need to create an environment in which universities themselves can become excellent. This environment is definitely not one that promotes average egalitarianism, in which the top university professors are treated as civil servants set up in some salary bracket, where business activities of university staff may be discouraged or where universities have to fight to get as many students as possible enrolled as their funding corresponds to how many subscriptions they have rather than the quality of the output. 

The world has become more competitive as such and the market of knowledge has become more competitive as well. Knowledge is no longer available through universities only. The multinational companies have excellent online or person-to-person types of education, programmes and tutorials as well. Research is happening outside universities too. The universities must be given a chance to fight back, to be competitive not only among themselves but among all the other centres of knowledge and education and where the elites of a nation are being built. 

They also must take into account the paradigm shifts that are happening in communication. There is a little need for a professor to speak live in front of an audience of students if he does not take questions, if there is no interaction or debate. The former can very well be done by distance learning or pre-recorded sessions. So a lot of this transmission of knowledge mechanisms can actually be skipped and the actual work could be in the interaction and asking the right questions. 

We have made higher education almost like an industrial process, taking freshmen inputs, teaching them and releasing bachelors and masters. In the process, we have lost some essential ingredients of universities which go beyond learning facts, knowledge and learning some formulae, into actually making people think and evaluate what they learn and put their hearts into the process, not just their minds. 

So, you say that universities have lost the monopoly of education and research and should form partnerships with business to remain competitive? 

Western science and technology is gradually losing the monopoly on a global scale to the researchers and universities in China, India and other big countries. We don’t know where a balance could be achieved. In order to be relevant to a society, the universities need to open up and find different channels through which they can have an impact. The impact through the forming of young graduates is an important one, but there are also many other ways in which universities can help the society. Co-operation with businesses is definitely one of them. 

In order to improve co-operation between business and academia, what are the concrete things that universities, governments and businesses should be doing? 

The governments of those countries which keep university activities under rather tight control should lift restrictions on them being entrepreneurial. Universities should be given more freedom to be entrepreneurial, to pursue contacts and be more flexible in hiring and firing and deciding on salaries, to determine how excellence within universities is rewarded. 

The universities should set up partnerships with governments so that trust is built. Because in order to give somebody more freedom you need to set up trust. To do so, universities would be best advised to organise themselves internally in a way that gives much more power to the very best in the universities rather than apply a democratic ‘everybody has a say’ way. The autonomy of universities should be given to the elite of the university and not to the average guys.

After we have done this and once universities start to be more entrepreneurial, then you would have business and universities starting to speak the same language and they would come together very quickly. 

Of course, co-operation can be forced through government incentives, such as joint programmes, co-funded research and education projects as well, but I would put much more confidence in business-academia co-operation if it is done organically through mutual interest. 

Is there anything businesses can do before universities become more independent? 

There are certain types of businesses that could in the near future profit a lot if the universities open up. There would be much more business activity around universities and these activities would need business capital and knowledge on how to create and grow a business – such as business angels or venture capitalists. All this has to come from outside and a lot of money can be made through these processes. 

Businesses should definitely not give up on universities but keep pushing them and showing interest. They should not let academia stay in its ivory tower but keep knocking on the door. 

How should governments respond to eventual resistance to change by students and academic staff? 

First, it is very natural for students to be against whatever. And I think they have a right to be so. Second, there are also differences among students – we should listen to the students, but we should listen to the best ones. Not to the sub-average student or the one who is studying very poorly and has a lot of time for university politics. If more money is coming to universities through business, more relevant research can be done. Joint university-business projects can be developed allowing students start working during university and then they can get a job with that company later on. Better university [education] would shape better students who would get better jobs, higher salaries.

It is a win-win situation. I can hardly see anyone losing from this. What could be unpopular to some is that of course this would create differences between the best professors and the average professors, those who do industrially relevant research and those who don’t, those students that are involved in projects and those who aren’t and spend more time in cafés. Whenever such differences arise they are not popular with those who fear they might be on the losing end. But in general it is a win-win situation for everybody. 

What was the role of business-academia cooperation in this year’s Spring Summit that revised the Lisbon agenda?   

I think that politicians, researchers, businesses and academia are well aware of the hidden potential of improved business-academia collaboration and these conclusions will be studied carefully. I think the Lisbon strategy is a strategy where you are trying to create synergies between and among research, creativity and innovation, plus the business environment as well as social and environmental issues. So it would be natural that all these synergies come together. 

The Spring Summit called for member states to give more freedom to universities in linking up with businesses, for greater mobility of faculty and students across Europe, for the continuation of higher education reforms and for a more open and competitive labour market in this field. 

When can we expect some changes to happen? 

They are happening as we speak accross Europe – sometimes easier, sometimes in a more difficult way. I think that the great thing with Europe is that we don’t need the same solutions on every issue in Europe. But it is very valuable, if we see examples of good and bad practices in our neighbouring countries, because we can learn from this. Competition in Europe between different solutions is good because it makes us all run faster. This applies to both competition among universitites and countries as well as between Europe and the rest of the world. 

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