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Understanding pessimism in Europe


There is no reason to resign ourselves to fatalism; to assume the golden days are over. It’s higher education that must invigorate Europe. This was the claim of Jo Ritzen, the former president of Maastricht University, in his inaugural lecture Can the University Save Europe? on 8 June. In February he was appointed honorary professor of International Economics of Science, Technology and Higher Education at the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences.


Research in the sciences has played a substantial role in technological advancement, argues Ritzen. But what have the humanities and social sciences contributed? We might have expected them to provide intellectual leadership by commenting on major societal questions. Alas not, says Ritzen, referring to a paradox: “While the percentage of well-trained people in the population grew, intellectual leadership seemed to decline.” Instead we got “disputes between intellectuals among themselves”.

And why are the voices of the national organisations of universities, like the ‘Rectors Conferences’, not heard in politics? According to Ritzen, the former minister of education, “university rectors and presidents have little respect for the political leadership. They claim that the best social outcome for universities is realised by giving full autonomy to universities, without interference from the government.”

Intellectual leadership is one of the fronts on which universities could invigorate Europe, Ritzen claims. Or, better: could save Europe. This is foremost a matter of restoring optimism and hope. Even before the crisis, the pessimism about Europe had been increasing. At the turn of the century, it had doubled on matters like the national economy, the financial situation and employment.

Universities should stand up and play a far more influential role in promoting sustainable economic growth than they have done in the past, although the economic contribution of higher education has increased dramatically in the past three decades. Better education and research could bring about economic growth of 1–2 percent in the coming two decades, Ritzen estimates. Universities should stimulate entrepreneurship and in general prepare students better for the labour market, which has changed significantly.

There is a world to win if the capacities of EU students appear to be as limited as those of US students. Last year, an American book on the quality of higher education aroused a storm of indignation in the US. A survey among 2,300 students from 24 institutions pointed out that in the first two years nearly half of the students did not improve on skills like writing, critical thinking and complex reasoning.

In Europe, we are awaiting comparable results from the AHELO project (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) in the course of 2012. And holding our breath.


Maurice Timmermans



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