Searching for a new narrative for Europe's universities oscillates between harmonization through EU requirements, autonomy gained by profile building, and by meeting regional expectations. Antonio Loprieno, Birgitta Wolff, Günther Burkert and Peter Parycek addressed these aspects in a webinar on 15 April 2021.

Europe's universities, especially those within the German-speaking world, are facing challenging times. They have to navigate their course between the conflicting priorities revolving their self-image, external expectations and fundamental changes in the international higher education landscape. Friedrich Faulhammer, Rector of the University for Continuing Education Krems, already referred to this pressure the universities are experiencing, in his welcome address. This pressure is just as noticeable at the level of the European University Association, to which the University for Continuing Education Krems has been a member since the end of 2020, as it is in the national context, in which ministerial expectations manifest themselves in the form of performance agreements.

Prof Antonio Loprieno, Egyptologist, former Rector of the University of Basel and President of the Austrian Science Council, addressed aspects of his book „Die Entzauberte Universität: Europäische Hochschulen zwischen lokaler Trägerschaft und globaler Wissenschaft“ (The Disenchanted University: European Universities between Local Sponsorship and Global Science) and developments in the last five years since it was written. 

Understanding university as an institution from a historical point of view

From an historical perspective, Loprieno identified three formative stages the university's self-image has undergone in its development: Humboldt's founding myth, the 1968 movement with the Frankfurt School, and, since 2000, "Bologna," which has become synonymous with the European political transformation of the academic landscape. Granting universities freedom in the guise of operational autonomy was seen by some as a "betrayal of the cultural encyclopedia". However, precisely this critical approach was a problem of the German-speaking world, Loprieno argued. As the role of universities was negotiated in the 19th century, three distinct bourgeois ideals of education crystallized across Europe. The Humboldtian model, the main pillar of which was the teaching of professional skills through state-funded education, became the dominant view in German-speaking countries. The opposite position is taken by the model of liberal arts education, in which a canon of cultural content is passed on in the course of private mediation, which emphasizes the general educational character as preparation for a leading role in societal life. This is contrasted with technical education, which is geared to professional application.

With the 20th century, the framework conditions for universities as an organization in continental Europe changed. The organizational shift in particular came to be seen in the move away from the primacy of the subject, such as Basel's Egyptology, to the brand "University of Basel". Unique selling points, shaped by this economic approach, were also needed to distinguish the university from its competitors in the competitive marketplace. This understanding also corresponded to the quantification of effort and revenue in the scientific enterprise.

Between harmonization and autonomy

In Europe, universities found themselves confronted with two partly contradictory sets of expectations: On the one hand, adaptation to European standard levels for the harmonization of offerings, while at the same time differentiating, as each university wanted to outperform the others. This allowed a less harmonious competitive relationship to emerge. Specifically, Loprieno addressed the positioning of universities by means of orientation towards research and the labor market, from which he derived, among other things, the current success of technical universities.

Owing it to the transformative role of digitization, universities have shifted from their traditional task of imparting knowledge to "taming" the surges of information, especially with regard to fake news. In terms of more recent developments, Loprieno picked up on a facet of scientific excellence that finds its numerical equivalent in grants acquired. The scientist found the priority given to the network idea in EU higher education policy exciting, as a result of which the local dimension of universities is also being emphasized more strongly. The fact that the local ecosystem is becoming more attractive is also shown by the activities of politics, for example the new foundations in Linz and Nuremberg. Whether this will lead to a new role for politics in shaping autonomy remains to be seen, Loprieno said.

Differentiation as a narrative

The former president of Goethe University Frankfurt (2015-2020) and current dean of the Faculty of Economics at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Prof Birgitta Wolff, addressed three issues in her opening statement. First, she put up for discussion whether a unified narrative for universities should be sought. Wolff identifies the differentiation of the university system, for example into the European University, the Reflective or Critical University, the Humboldt University, the Digital University, into cadre schools or alternative think tanks.

Furthermore, Wolff shed light on the role of science management or "academic administration" as to Loprieno's diction. To this day, even the definition of this field seems unclear to Wolff. While the three dimensions of university activity - teaching, research and Third Mission - are generally agreed upon, the role of science management remains relatively open. Here, Wolff advocates an integrative model of thinking that relates management to these three areas, which allows for a more precise differentiation of tasks.

Bologna - opportunity and burden at the same time

As a final point, Wolff mentioned Bologna, addressing the current trade-off between modular versus cumulative study structures. In this context, Wolff took up the cudgels in favor of cumulative study structures, as she occasionally saw modular arbitrariness as an excuse for the lack of a clearly defined structure. In addition to her plea for the propaedeutic course, Wolff affirmed that a modular study structure does not fit every subject.

She was critical of the transition from bachelor's to master's studies in many areas, especially when changing universities. However, it also became clear that Wolff was not taking on the role of Cassandra with regard to the Bologna Process. She sees Bologna as an external shock to the higher education landscape that has dynamized the system, forced the individual institutions with their inherent idiosyncrasies to discuss and become more transparent. Against the backdrop of freedom of study, Wolff warned against a "Bologna bulimia," where content would be packed into the smallest possible units and thus become an interchangeable commodity. She advocated more confidence in the students, which could be promoted through appropriate study design, for example through international or interdisciplinary tracks. Loprieno and Wolff agreed that perseverance on the part of all those involved is needed for the Bologna Process to succeed, also in order to learn from mistakes.

Discussing alternatives for growth

Prof Günther R. Burkert, Visiting Professor at the University for Continuing Education Krems, opened the discussion with a "rule" Antoine de Saint Exupéry gave: "Perfection is only achieved when nothing can be left out." This, Burkert said, is countered by the "add-on logic" of universities, which are continually growing and establishing new institutes. In this context, Loprieno referred to a "typical problem the way universities are understood in the German-speaking world," according to which even the existence of small subjects depends on their physically representation by an institute of their own, and on the full range of courses being offered, spanning from the bachelor's degree to the dissertation. Leaving out the Bachelor degree in certain study course, for example, would not be possible in a climate of "rapid maintenance". Wolff, too, sees omission as a major challenge for established institutions. In order to motivate them to do so, external guard lines are needed, such as those that come into play during re-accreditations. At a higher level, Wolff believes that the establishment of small, highly specialized state-funded universities could give impetus for change in the sense of systemic change management. In this context, Prof Peter Parycek, mentioned the plans for TU Linz (Technical University Linz), of which it is not yet known whether the organization will be novel or whether the result will be "more of the same".

To be continued in June

After the "Networked University" and the "Disenchanted University", the subsequent topic of part three is "The Measured University - Goal, Desire and Reality" and scheduled for 22 June 2021, 18:00 (GMZ). Peter Parycek, IT-scientist specialized in law, heads the Department for E-Governance and Administration, which is responsible for the event organization, will once again moderate the online event. Particularly pleasing stood the fact that "Disenchanted University" drew the attention of over a hundred interested persons again, as well as the positive feedback from both webinar- presenters and participants.

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