Europe needs smarter education and research investment

July 8, 2014

Anka Mulder–Anka Mulder is Vice-President for Education and Operations at Delft University of Technology.  She was formerly Global President of the OpenCourseWare consortium.—

Education and research infrastructure, such as laboratory facilities and digital learning networks, play an increasingly important role in diffusing knowledge and technology to enhance prosperity. At a time when the overall EU budget has decreased for the first time ever, education and research programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 continue to receive significant funding increases, but Europe is still falling behind other areas of the world in building digital infrastructure.

Part of the reason is that education largely remains a national-level responsibility and the record of individual countries is uneven. This is due to a lack of prioritisation in some member states, post-crisis budget cutbacks, and many member states not using EU Structural and Investment Funds for funding research infrastructures, despite encouragement from Brussels.

Investing more smartly in education and research is perhaps as important as absolute levels of investment. Of the Erasmus+ budget, 77% is spent on mobility for nearly 500,000 higher education students and teachers/lecturers per year.

That makes a real difference, but still only impacts  2.5% of Europe’s 20 million students. Of Horizon 2020’s budget, just 3% is allocated to new research and education infrastructure.

No clear budget line exists for development of open and online education infrastructure. “Cooperation for innovation and exchange of good practices”, including online education, is allocated 28% of the Erasmus+ budget, but not investment in infrastructure, such as research labs.

In the U.S., the $60 million edX Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) venture, created by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hosts more than 200 online courses from more than 30 universities free-of-charge, and has registered around 1 million learners in two years. More people have signed up for MOOCs at Harvard in a single year than have attended the university in its 377-year history!

Some European institutions, such as Delft University of Technology, Edinburgh University, Carlos III in Madrid, Leiden University and EPFL, have invested heavily in online education, networks, and staff training, but support and funding is needed to maintain their international competitiveness. State funding for Europe’s universities is generally falling, whilst counterparts across the world, including in China, are receiving much increased government financing, Europe’s universities do not generally have access to the significant private financing that their counterparts in the United States do.

If Brussels and national governments get the funding equation right in the coming years, the private sector is likely to come on board with finance in support of a better educated workforce. With Europe’s economic recovery underway, enhancing education and research infrastructure is an opportunity to tackle youth unemployment, improve competitiveness and reignite growth.

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