What approach should be taken to increase innovation and performance at European higher education institutions?
The positive correlation between the advanced education of citizens and the development of sustainable economic growth is undeniable.
According to a report by K4D, “the larger the stock of the adult population with higher levels of education, the higher the potential for economic growth”.
The report also revealed that higher education can produce “both social and private benefits”, with an estimated world average return on investment to the individual of 19% and to society of 10%.
Participation in higher education is just one part of the story of improved economic growth – the quality of this education also has a significant role to play.
In September 2020, the European Commission introduced key initiatives aimed at advancing Europe’s potential in education, research and innovation.
The move came in response to concerns that European universities were struggling to provide the intellectual and creative intensity needed to drive economic performance.
Dimensions that will be addressed as part of the education plan include, “quality in education and training, inclusion and gender equality, green and digital transitions, teachers and trainers, higher education and geopolitical dimension”.
Calls to increase funding within research were also made, alongside the request that the digitally enhanced education that has arisen as a result of the coronavirus crisis didn’t get “branded as an emergency mode, but instead foster forward-looking strategies and actions beyond the crisis”.
Focus is placed on creating change from a “bottom-up” manner, without totally abandoning the traditional “top-down” approach that commonly sees the application of universal policies from external organisations in decision making.
According to the Centre for European Reform, one of the key issues with adopting a solely top-down approach is that it leads to a culture in which “individual universities lack the power and often the incentives to introduce more effective governance systems”.
A 2006 assessment of the bottom-up approach found that “grass-roots initiatives in higher education are often more effective than top-down directives”.
The report continues: “It would not be feasible, or indeed desirable, to apply a shared definition of quality to institutions that have different individual missions and that evaluation against a specific mission (fitness for/of purpose) is the realistic way to ensure that all institutions adhere to a shared quality agenda”.
For example, a bottom-up approach to research would see funding assigned “based on the many and diverse contributions of the research community, notably including Open Science practices, citizen engagement and impact on society”.
According to a survey by the European University Association that gathered responses from 219 higher education institutions from 34 systems across Europe, “88% of responding higher education institutions underline the bottom-up nature of the initiative and would like to keep the room for maneuver as open as possible”.
However, a top-down approach cannot be abandoned all together, as it secures effective management of change.
For more insights into how European universities can achieve a balance between a top-down and bottom-up approach to change, please register for our virtual event, QS Europe 2021, Leveling the field: Bottom-up growth in building resilient European higher education.