The presentation of the position of the European Council on the EU´s budget from 2021 to 2027 and the Recovery plan on 10 July, and notably its proposed further cuts to the budgets of the Erasmus and Horizon Europe programmes, should make the higher education sector reflect on its advocacy efforts. One could conclude that the efforts of the sector to make its voice heard at the EU level have to a large extent been off-target, in spite of the recent advent of well-sounding, but now likely to be underfunded, initiatives of the European Commission.
In recent years we’ve seen an increase of representations of the higher education sector in Brussels offices, either through stakeholder networks or institutional representatives. Surely, these efforts have increased the sector’s outreach to the Commission and Parliament, and strengthened the sector’s international interconnection, thereby adding another layer onto earlier Europeanisation efforts. They also brought more visibility of the EU’s funding programmes to academics within the representatives’ respective institutions, as well as greater understanding of the working of Brussels in many a Rector’s office. But if under the next budget it turns out that more institutions and academics will be competing for less - the Council’s proposals are far lower than the European Parliament and higher education and R&D organisations have called for - then the reward for many years of championing European integration within the sector, is all in all meagre.
Certainly, with Eurosceptics and the ‘frugal four’ around, and the economic and political fall-out of the pandemic knocking on the door, it could have been predicted that the budgetary priorities of national leaders in the Council once again would be turned elsewhere. Yet if strategic autonomy is to be in any way a true ambition for our continent, along with a leading role in global challenges such as climate change and achieving sustainability, an outlook of those leaders beyond the next election rounds is essential. Next to industry and digitalisation, investigator-driven frontier research has a vital role to play in the realisation of such longer-run ambitions. The same holds true for the education and training providing the citizens of the future with the knowledge, competences and skills to perform research and to apply its results, and to self-develop and thrive. After all, human capital is our most crucial resource in the Anthropocene.
However, the higher education sector is traditionally very polite in making its points. In its advocacy activities, the sector generally acts along the lines of the values it holds high, conscious of its societal responsibility. The sector’s representatives won’t empty the content of their crucibles onto the streets in protest, and universities won’t delocalise their ‘production facilities’ (barring the establishment of a few branch campuses), nor lock-out its students. It refrains from biting the hands that feed it. The sector also mostly addresses the European Commissioner and Commission officials directly relevant to itself. Results are showcased to one another, dialogues undertaken, and certainly in this way funding programme structures and rules can be, have been, and are being improved.
However, when it comes down to the EU´s long-term budget, it is those who hold other positions that need convincing of the importance of the sector and its European-level budgetary needs: other Commissioners, heads of state and governments, ministers of finance, parliamentarians and officials, other sector representatives, and most necessarily and effectively, society at large. While individual institutions and academics are making laudable efforts in terms of outreach and science communication, it would appear that at systemic level there is still a lot to be gained to obtain the necessary impact.
The pandemic provided arguments in favour of a strengthening of the higher education and research sectors alongside healthcare. Yet part of society, tired as it may be of COVID measures, may show tendencies to blame researchers, i.e. ‘shooting the pianists’, rather than finger-pointing lacklustre application by the governments of scientific advice in preventing and tackling pandemics. The sector is prone to easy reproaches of ivory-tower elitism, which constitutes an even stronger handicap in times of thriving populism and easy answers. Explaining the scientific process and its uncertainties is not a straightforward task, but appears to be a must.
So beside it being clear that in the coming weeks the senior leadership of higher education institutions have to make efforts towards their national leaders to support the European Parliament in the current budget negotiations, it is also time to start thinking on the approach for the budget 2028-2035, however far off that may still seem. How about the setting of common and cohesive ambitions for the continent as a starting point, along which to rally the entire sector and potential allies? And probably above all to self-confidently, but not condescendingly, convince broader society of the vital role of education and research in preserving the continent’s future and bringing solutions to daily lives, along with the reasons why part of these activities are best coordinated and funded at the EU level. To make society our strongest lobbyist, that ought to be the ambition.
Member of our President´s team and of our Task Force Competitive Funding
Policy Advisor International Relations at Ghent University