More Europeanisation

On the 24th of January, a so-called ‘letter of formal notice‘ has been sent by the European Commission to the governments of Austria and Belgium. The letter concerns the ‘Europeanisation by stealth’ that I have addressed before here for the case of Austria and here for the case of Belgium. These governments thought they found a solution for the high influx of foreign students (respectively German and French) in some of their universities.

European law – Article 12 of the EC Treaty – prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality. In Austria, they thought they found a way to circumvent European law by discriminating not on the basis of nationality (which was addressed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in July 2005) but on the basis of the location where students obtained their secondary education. Now it seems that the Commission considers that Austria has still not complied with the ECJ’s ruling:

“In the case of Austria, this is a follow-up to the judgement of the European Court of Justice in July 2005. The Austrian legislation had required that the holders of secondary education diplomas from other Member States had to prove that they have met conditions governing access to the higher education in their home country (e.g. passing the entrance exams). The Court held that Austria’s legislation discriminated against holders of secondary education diplomas awarded in another Member State, since they could not gain access to Austrian higher education under the same conditions as holders of the equivalent Austrian diploma (Article 12, 149, 150 of the EC Treaty). As regards a possible justification of such discrimination, the ECJ stated in particular that Austria “failed to demonstrate that … the existence of the Austrian education system in general and the safeguarding of the homogeneity of higher education in particular would be jeopardized”, in the absence of restrictive measures, by the number of students coming from other countries, mainly Germany.

Following the Court’s decision, Austria provisionally amended the relevant Universities Act twice, firstly in July 2005 to abide the Court’s decision then, in June 2006, to re-establish restrictions to the access. The latter amendment specified that, for some studies, 75 % of the study places could be reserved to applicants with a secondary education diploma acquired in Austria (and 20 % to other EU students, the remaining 5% to third-countries students). A subsequent decree stipulated that these quotas were to be introduced for medicine and dental studies till the end of 2007.

Today’s letter of formal notice – based on Article 228 of the Treaties (i.e. non-application of an ECJ ruling)- indicates that the Commission, having analysed the justifications put forward so far by the Austrian authorities, considers at this stage that Austria has still not complied with the ECJ’s ruling and invites accordingly Austria to submit its observations.”

Reforms in Belgium (the Wallonian part) last year restricted the number of foreign students in particular degrees like veterinary science and physiotherapy. Many French students studied in Belgium because they are required to go through entrance exams in France. While writing about that case in March last year, I already predicted that this might constitute a breach of Article 12. In their letter, the Commission seems to agree:

“With today’s letter of formal notice, the European Commission indicates – for similar reasons as in the Austrian case – that this system has discriminatory effect on the EU nationals not residing in Belgium and that Belgium failed to justify the introduction of this system.”

Both Member States have now 2 months to respond to the letter of formal notice of the Commission. A letter of formal notice has no direct legal consequences but it is considered the first step of infringement proceedings which could lead to cases before the ECJ.

Most likely there will be more similar cases like this in the near future. The EU Observer for instance addresses the Denmark case:

“Meanwhile Denmark – which has many Swedish students in its universities – is looking at what Copenhagen may do to stop the influx from across the Oresund strait.”We have to find a solution at the EU [level],” Danish science minister Helge Sander said in July 2006, after it emerged that one third of students accepted in Danish medical faculties that year were Swedish.”

So why do I keep coming back to this issue? The cases in themselves of course do have a significant local impact. But it is more about the bigger picture: the loss of national sovereignty over an issue that has always been firmly within the authority of national governments. To what extent can a ‘non discrimination’ principle function in a service that is still seen as very important for the advancement of national society, national culture and the national economy.

Here, it could be interesting to make a comparison with the United States. In the US, discrimination on the basis of the ‘state of origin’ is a normal practice. Some public universities (the State Universities) have a clear mandate to recruit a certain part of their student population from their own region (some states or university systems set caps on the proportion of students that can be enrolled from other states) and are allowed to charge higher tuition to out-of-state students. One could conclude that higher education in the United states of Europe is more integrated than in the United States of America…

The pressure from the Commission and the rulings of the ECJ can especially have an important impact upon policies regulating student fees. If selection on the basis of nationality is no longer possible, it will become unsustainable to provide free education in some countries. After all, this is likely to create an influx of foreign students from other EU member countries (for which the tax payers in the host country are probably unwilling to pay). As we have seen in the cases above, not only tuition fees, but also other barriers to access might cause such an outflux.

In the ScienceGuide I read the reaction of the chairman of the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), Koen Geven. He says that the letter of the Commission came too late and is too soft. Nevertheless, they are happy the Commission is finally taking action, because these two countries (Belgium and Austria) have been neglecting one of the most fundamental principles in the European Union – non discrimination – for too long.

I would think that the ultimate consequences of this increased Europeanisation of higher education might turn out to be very much contradictory to the guiding principles of some national student unions (for instance with regards to tuition fees and other financial issues, like providing financial student support to – national – students). I wonder what the Austrian and Belgium members of the ESIB think of the Commissions letter! Geven also says that the countries where the students come from should reconsider their regulations with respect to access to higher education. Indirectly that would mean – in this case – that Germany and France should harmonise their policies towards ‘a European standard’, leading to further convergence in the field and threatening the – so much treasured – diversity in European higher education.

I think the Commission is well aware of the senstivity of the issue on the longer term. It clearly shows that in the press release:

“The Commission recognises the sensitivity of the issue of access to universities in various Member States. While pursuing its role as guardian of the Treaties, it remains open to continue the dialogue with both the Austrian and Belgian authorities.”

I’ll keep a close eye on further developments in this case.

Ivy League CEOs

The blog of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) has a post that plugs into an earlier article from Time: “Where the Fortune 50 CEOs Went to College“. Here it was concluded that an elite career doesn’t always stem from an elite education.
CCAP conducted a deeper study of this topic. They tracked down the CEOs for the top 100 Fortune companies for the years 2006, 1980 and 1955. Together, this represents roughly three different generations of business leaders. From there, they researched where these CEOs completed their undergraduate and graduate work, in addition to levels and types of degrees obtained. They arrive at a similar conclusion:

“Over time, the Ivy League has experienced a decline. By 1980, the number of CEOs attending undergraduate school at Ivy League institutions had fallen to 19, a 50 percent drop from the previous generation. Fewer CEOs attended the prestigious schools as well, with only 32 in 1980. This trend away from the Ivy League as well as America’s “prestigious” universities continued into 2006. Of the top 100 Fortune CEOs of companies last year, only 12 did their undergraduate work at an Ivy institution and 20 at a prestigious school.

However, they also looked at the increasing number of CEOs that attended graduate schools after their undergraduate education. But even in graduate education, the Ivy League’s dominance seems to be in decline:

“Graduate school attendance among the Fortune 100 CEOs has greatly increased over the past half century. For example, in 1955, only 17 CEOs attended graduate school. This number increased to 46 in 1980 and 61 in 2006. The number that attended Ivy graduate schools grew from 4 in 1955 to 16 in 1980 where it remained in 2006. This statistic remaining the same in the period from 1980 to 2006, despite increasing graduate school attendance, seems to further suggest the declining influence of the Ivy League—even among graduate schools.”

Have a look at the complete post here.

The End of the University

On 8 January, at the 375th birthday (Dies Natalis) of the University of Amsterdam, University Professor Louise Fresco gave the annual anniversary speech (Dies rede) to the university community. Unfortunately, the address is only available in Dutch. With the risk of totally mutilating and distorting Fresco’s brilliant style of writing, I want to share a few (translated) passages of her magnificent speech. In her address, Louise Fresco reported about research that was done by Dr. Hakim Sarastro of the University of Oeloemia. Part of Dr. Sarastro’s research on European higher education was conducted in Amsterdam(*). Fresco cites frequently from the letters that Sarastro sent to his colleagues in Oeloemia.

In his first letter(**), Sarastro starts on a positive and hopeful note:

“Dear Friends, finally I am in Europe, birthplace of western science! I feel like a traveler whose thirst will finally be quenched. Where better than in this continent, where the university was invented, can we test whether we are heading in the right direction at home in Oeloemia.”

After doing field work at the University of Amsterdam, Sarastro continues in a more disillusioned tone in his second letter:

“In Oeloemia we know that the young student is like a new flower that needs to be treated carefully and has to be given the utmost care and attention. Only the freshest water and the purest nutrients will lead to knowledge and understanding. (…) But here, education takes place in grubbily underground rooms with bright fluorescent tubes, heaps of crushed plastic cups and scratched tables, by overworked teachers that do not have the time for the massive number of students that they are supposed to take care of. Under the guise of self-directed learning, many classes have been abolished; …and that while the art of listening is the first step in the maturation of the young soul.”

Dr. Sarastro was also astonished about the incestuous nature of academia in this small country, as he wrote in his fourth letter:

“… And then I noticed something that is utterly perplexing. In this affluent country there are no distant, isolated areas without books, where to one could be expelled. From east to west, from north to south, everywhere people live in equal comfort, but still no one seems to be willing to move. What in other places would be called intellectual incest – please forgive me the use of such a shocking term – has here become normal practice: one becomes professor at the university where one obtained the PhD, or where one graduated. Maybe that is why they are so found of the miniscule differences between the universities and research groups. Here, they are worse than the strictest religious scholars in Oeloemia: the ones that come from a particular school will be rejected in other schools, as a renegade. Even though they call themselves international, here in this country they see themselves and their models as unique, and that’s why they prefer to avoid speaking amongst each other.”

Accountability and performance have led to a system of peer review in the evaluation of research and the assessment of universities. This system is discussed in his fifth letter.

“This beautiful system however, is far less objective than its supporters think. The editors of the top journals are not afraid to use political resources to preserve their power. The editorial boards are inclined to create barriers and only accept papers that come from likeminded schools, so that rival groups can publish less of their work. Researchers themselves will slice their studies into more and more separate pieces, lest they can publish more. It is as if they try to squeeze as many drops out of an orange as possible instead of trying to squeeze one drop of valuable perfume out of the orange blossom.”

And about university evaluations:

“Believe me, I sincerely made an attempt to read the assessment reports, but I don’t have the faintest idea about which conclusions can be drawn on the basis of these reports, except that everything is going well and that they are very satisfied about themselves. Of course they will include foreign peers in the assessment teams. But here it is the case that they invite friends from likeminded schools, and that they return the favor at their schools. So, almost without exception, they get a grade of the highest level, and only rarely will a program be abolished. Considering all this, one would conclude that all inhabitants of this university were prophets.”

“And I’ll tell you something else I didn’t expect, my friends. Their work is now so tightly coordinated and arranged, that there is no time left anymore for unanticipated ideas. But if we aim for the development of knowledge, don’t we then need the freedom to go where our research leads us? The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain.”

In his sixth letter he writes about his experiences within the faculties.

“It is truly a relief to see that the long European tradition is kept alive: here at the University of Amsterdam there are still the identifiable, classical faculties like the medical sciences, the physical sciences and the humanities. But I discovered that within these faculties programs are established of which I can not understand the content. These programs are about issues like doing business and communication. (…) Friends, it cannot be the case that a scientific, academic education has no higher objective then helping young people to understand the news on TV and to write their CVs!”


“They stand with their backs against each other, looking over the river, full of distrust and only longing for participation in the ‘League of Top Universities and Top Faculties’ on the other side of the seas. Politicians here claim that knowledge is the cornerstone of progress, but they distrust every call for more university resources. Can this small country, that in many respects is already ‘big’ relative to its population and its area, excel in all areas? Like the wise men say: the mountain that wants to reach to the skies, needs to spread its slopes widely over the plains, and the elite is positioned on the shoulders of large families.”

Dr. Sarastro also expresses his concern about the financial situation and the bureaucracy in the universities:

“Every time, more and more pages need to be written to obtain the same amount of money. Most peculiar of this university is that so few hours are spent on thinking. Instead of thinking they write reports, instead of waiting patiently for that creative spark, they are in meetings.”

Why not compare the Sciences with the Arts, proposes Dr. Sarastro:

“The development, protection and transfer of knowledge don’t differ fundamentally from the promotion of the Arts, which flourishes so well over here. Does it? Sponsoring is what this peculiar transaction is called, not only free of interest, but also free of influence: one buys or hires ten dancers, fifty violinists or three paintings, without being able to determine what is played or displayed. It might be amazing that the rich are involved in such activities, but over here it is regarded as very respectable for the rich to support museums and concerts.

Doesn’t our knowledge – that helps us to understand how the world works, what our position is and who we are – deserve to be nourished just like the Arts? Nevertheless, the rich and the companies remain absent, unless they can determine what the research will be about? “

Dr. Sarastro also finds that there is a feeling of distance and indifference between city and university, except where it concerns making money through spin-off companies. He thinks that that should be different:

“I haven’t spoken to anyone in the city that was truly proud of the University of Amsterdam. A city without university is like a human without thoughts, like a plain without a horizon! They cannot exist without each other. The city needs free thinkers because creativity and authenticity represent a city. The application of knowledge in new companies occurs spontaneously in an environment that attracts creative people. There is no need for official committees to stimulate this.”

By the time Hakim Sarastro gets to his eighth letter, there seem to appear more and more signs of desperation:

“Friends! In Oeloemia, the university is a place where students in small groups and together with their teachers, learn what science is, where research demands the highest personal dedication and where only the best professors – by rotation – as deans take comprehensible decisions about the academic directions.”


“The confusion and dissatisfaction here, prove that systems of equity representation and participation do not lead to courageous decisions. National politicians refuse to put the money where their mouth is, the management of universities is paralyzed by internal struggles and lack of resources, and the professors… ah, they’ll go their own way. There is no Universitas here, no desire to jointly shape a university.”


“This is, my friends, the sad ending of a grand tradition that, from Bologna, via Coimbra, Paris, Heidelberg and Cambridge led to the nice European promises of Lisbon. Does this mean the end of the university? Will she implode because of the increasing bureaucratic pressures from within and from outside, and the centrifugal forces of market oriented research that is destroying the classical faculties? Will the university go to pieces because of a lack in leadership or because of the increasing student numbers? However things may be in Amsterdam, my dearest friends, we in Oeloemia need to go forward! Because he who saves one university, saves them all!”

Dr. Sarastro ends his last letter with the following passage:

“Oh friends, how my heart longs for the gardens of Oeloemia, for the jasmine shrubs that are touched by the quiet drops of the fountain – like by the finger tips of a lover – , for the honorable calmness of our inner courts where one only reads and whispers. There should be as many universities as there are plants flourishing in our gardens. Too long have I found myself in this grey mist, between empty trees and the smell of fried potatoes, in this country where the moon appears to be slower and paler than elsewhere. I have told you in detail about my visit, since I could only survive by telling you my story”

(*) Sarastro, H. Letters from My Travels Searching for Universal Serendipity, the case of the University of Amsterdam (English summary). University of Oeloemia, Sunpower Press, Oeloemia, 2006. Circulation restricted.

(**) In an end note to the speech, Louise Fresco reveals her real source of inspiration: Lettres persanes by Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu), anonymously published in Amsterdam in 1721. Montesquieu is such an inspiring character because he was interested in – and experienced in – all sciences, from philosophy to physics. The name Sarastro does not come from the Lettres persanes, but of course refers to the keeper of the Temple of Wisdom in Mozart’s Zauberflote. Fresco has named him Hakim (‘the wise man’). Oeloemia is a name made up by Fresco, coming from ‘Uluum’, the Arabic word for Sciences.

Some of Sarastro’s words come directly from Montesquieu. In other instances, Fresco has added some words from Persian poetry (from Thackston, W.M.: A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry: A Guide to the Reading & Understanding of Persian Poetry from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century, 1994 Ibex Publishers, Bethesda (MD)). The comparison with the barking dog (Letter V) comes from a speech by Adlai Stevenson from the University of Wisconsin (in 1952: ‘If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain’).

[With thanks to ScienceGuide for pointing me to the speech. The full speech, in Dutch, can be found here]

The Ivy League Liga: Round 2

2006 has been somewhat of a revolutionary year for German higher education. The system where all universities were considered of equal quality and therefore were subjected to equal treatment by the government, experienced quite a stir.

German Minister of Research and Education Annette Schavan announced in October last year that the Ludwig-Maximilian University (Munchen) and the Technical University of Munchen and the University of Karlsruhe became Germany’s first ‘elite universities’. The three institutions are the biggest winners in Germany’s ‘excellence initiative’. This was established to improve the country’s chronically under-funded universities (and its decreasing reputation abroad), by encouraging high level research and competition. The three universities will receive around 120 million euros each in federal and state funds over the next five years.

This week, the finalists for the second round were announced. Being one of the winners is crucial considering that getting designated ‘elite’ will mean enjoying a piece of the 1.9 billion euros pie, made available from 2007 to 2011. This time the result seems less skewed towards technology, and less towards the southern part of Germany than the first round. The finalists include two institutes of higher education in Berlin, the Free University and the Humboldt University. The others are the RWTH Aachen and the universities of Bochum, Freiburg, Gottingen, Heidelberg and Constance.

The final decision on which of these eight will be designated ‘elite’ will be made in October.

Some interesting views from the German academic community on the excellence initiative can be heard in this radio interview (from NPR; 4:26 in english):


Retention of Foreign Graduates

Some months ago, the Vienna based International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) published a study on admission and retention policies towards foreign students.

Much has been written about the way in which states and universities have promoted international mobility of students and international recruiting. This study looks at what happens with these foreign students after they graduate. This is particularly interesting considering that more and more industrialised countries are looking for ways to promote immigration of highly skilled professionals to help boost their economy.

The study covers the following countries in detail: Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA, and the United Kingdom. Additionally, developments regarding student migration are outlined in the Czech Republic, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and Spain. The report (96 pages) shows some interesting statistics and comparisons. Here are some passages from the executive summary.

On the growth of international students:

The dynamic growth of the international student population over the last five years was also, compared to the US, more pronounced in many European and overseas countries. While the stock of international students increased by only 10% in the US between 2000 and 2005, France and Germany saw their international student population increase by more than 60%, Australia by over 120% and Sweden by 146%.

On retention rates:

On average, between 15 and 20% of foreign students can be expected to eventually settle and work in Canada. In New Zealand, of all first-time students between 1998 and 2005, 13% had already received a permanent residence permit by 2006. In Norway, of all non-EEA students studying there between 1991 and 2005, 18% stayed in the country after graduation (but only 9% of all EEA students). In the UK, a recent survey sent to EU domiciled students six months after graduation in 2005 indicates that around 27% of respondents were employed in the UK (up from 19% in 2000). On the other hand, survey data for the USA indicate that retention rates for foreign nationals who received a doctorate in science and engineering are well over 50% (there are no comparable data on non-doctorate degrees available).

Download the full report here

No Censorship

Due to mysterious circumstances a change in the settings for the comments on my blogposts has occurred some months ago. I’ve been able to recover some of the comments you have made on some of the posts, but it might be the case that some have been deleted. Just to let you know that there is no censorship here…

Except of course if you are one of the spammers that have tried to flood my blog with spam comments (for very strange products I might say). Since I don’t want to moderate the comments, I have activated the word verification function. Hopefully that keeps the spammers away…

The world according to maps

The Spatial and Social Inequalities Research Group of the Geography Department at the University of Sheffield have created an interesting website. Worldmapper: the world as you’ve never seen it before. It is a collection of world maps, where territories are re-sized on each map according to the subject of interest.

I played around a bit, creating maps reflecting the participation in higher education, the amount higher education spending and the scientific research in terms of the number of scientific articles. Unsurprisingly, this creates maps where the US, Europe and East Asia is dominating. However, if you compare it with a population map, it’s clear that the dominance is especially in North America, Europe and Japan.

However, if we look at the maps (click for enlargements) that show the growth in higher education spending…

…and the growth in scientific research over the period 1990-2001, we see some interesting things.

  • Australia has basically vanished from the face of the earth, in terms of the growth in spending on higher ed. It looks like it has to illustrate a negative value. Some other countries where growth is not keeping up are the Netherlands and the UK.
  • The map on higher education spending already shows that Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore already spent relatively much on higher education. The map on the growth of spending shows that these countries’ increasingly see higher education as a priority.
  • Singapore’s fixation with the emerging knowledge economy seems to bear fruit. Singapore had the greatest per person increase in scientific publications.
  • In terms of scientific growth, nearly the whole continent of Africa seems to be swept of the map. But also a populous country like Indonesia has turned from a string of islands into a nearly invisible line.

Travel report

Here, somewhere between Los Angeles and Sydney, I decided it’s time to resume posting again. I’m returning from a very long and interesting trip through Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Netherlands, Portugal, Canada and the US. In three of the countries I have conducted interviews for my research: Indonesia (at Institut Teknologi Bandung and Universitas Gadjah Mada), Malaysia (Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaya) and the Netherlands (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and Technische Universiteit Delft).

My research analyses the way in which nation states and universities respond to the increasing importance of knowledge for economic development and global competitiveness. One thing I’m particularly interested in is the extent to which a process of global policy convergence can be detected in these responses.

In later posts I will try to refer to some of the experiences I’ve had in these countries. For now, just a few short observations

Indonesia has come a long way, but is struggling. Indonesia’s elite universities are more and more relying on student fees and entrepreneurial ventures to sustain their operations. Just over 5 years ago, these universities were almost solely dependent on government funding and strictly directed by national regulations. It of course has also given them much more autonomy. I remember I had some interviews in Indonesia in 2001, just after some of its public elite institutions received the autonomy status. At that time they were clearly struggling with their newly gained autonomy. Compared with 2001, one now seems to be much more decisive on what directions to go.

I couldn’t have chosen a more interesting time to visit Malaysia. During my visits in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the Times Higher Education Supplement issued its annual top 100 ranking of universities. One conclusion must be that the THES ranking is nowhere taken more seriously than in Malaysia. This however can be said for higher education as a whole. In politics as well as the mainstream media, higher education gets more attention in Malaysia than in any other country I know. But at the same time this has led to a remarkable progress in higher education and science. I’ve seen very interesting examples of cutting edge research, supported by impressive facilities. Also politically, Malaysia has proven to be fascinating. I won’t go into details here, but it has become clear to me that – due to its impressive economic and scientific progress – Malaysia’s tight political control seems to become less and less sustainable. If some of the governmental regulations won’t loosen up, Malaysia might become a typical example of the incompatibility between paternalistic politics and a creative knowledge society. Future will tell..

And than there’s the Netherlands. My visit coincided with the national elections, and if there is one word that best illustrates the result of the elections it is: conservatism. Dutch universities however, seem to become more and more innovative. My visits gave the impression that the traditionally rather rigid Dutch universities have become more flexible and are more open to change than they used to be.

But as I said: more posts to come on these issues…