Which European country produces the best scientists?

The role of universities in the Europe of knowledge

The aim of the communication is to initiate a debate on the role universities should play in Europe's knowledge-based economy and society.


Communication from the Commission of 5 February 2003 - The role of universities in a Europe of knowledge [COM (2003) 58 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


In view of this central role, the creation of a knowledge-based Europe opens up great opportunities for universities, but at the same time presents them with great challenges. After all, universities operate in an increasingly globalized environment that is constantly evolving. It is characterized by increasing competition for the greatest talent and the emergence of new requirements to which universities have to respond. However, European universities are generally less attractive and have less financial resources than universities in other developed countries, particularly the US. So the question arises as to how far they are able to compete with the best universities in the world and to guarantee top performance over the long term. This question is particularly acute with a view to enlargement, because the situation of universities in the candidate countries is often very difficult - both in terms of human resources and financial resources.

The European higher education landscape

The higher education system is extremely heterogeneous, both in terms of organization and decision-making structures as well as working conditions (including the status of professors and researchers and the conditions for their recruitment and employment).

There are around 3,300 higher education institutions in the European Union. Across Europe, including the other Western European countries and the acceding countries, there are around 4,000. The number of students at these universities is growing: in 2000 it was 12.5 million, ten years earlier it was 9 million. Universities employ 34% of all researchers in Europe, although this share varies widely from Member State to Member State (26% in Germany, 55% in Spain and more than 70% in Greece).

The European Union has slightly more science and technology graduates than the United States, but at the same time has fewer scientists than the other major technological powers. This obvious paradox is due to the lower number of jobs offered to young scientists in Europe, especially in the private sector: only 50% of European scientists work in companies, compared with 83% of American and 66% of Japanese scientists. Nevertheless, 80% of basic research in Europe is carried out at universities.

Universities and the European Dimension

Universities are largely responsible for national or regional levels and universities seem to be struggling to achieve a real European dimension. For example, student mobility in Europe remains marginal. In 2000, only 2.3% of European students were studying in another European country. However, the EU finances numerous initiatives to promote research, education and training at European and international level.

In the field of research, European universities receive around a third of the funds from the fifth and sixth EU framework programs for research and technological development and benefit in particular from the actions to promote the training and mobility of scientists ("Marie Curie" grants) Education and training, universities are very much involved in all the SOCRATES actions, particularly Erasmus, which supports joint mobility projects between universities and companies between 1995 and 1999, involving 40,000 people The universities are also involved in the eEurope initiative and its eEurope 2005 action plan, which encourages all universities to develop online access for students and researchers ("virtual campus").

This cooperation also extends to countries outside the EU. The research framework program is for the most part open to all countries in the world and supports, in particular, cooperation with countries in the Mediterranean region, Russia and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union as well as developing countries. With the TEMPUS program, the EU also supports cooperation with universities from countries of the former Soviet Union, Southeastern Europe and, since the program was expanded in 2002, also with the Mediterranean region. There are also other initiatives for relations with other parts of the world, for example ALFA and Asia-Link.

New challenges for European universities

Universities are faced with the need to adapt to keep pace with various profound changes. These are:

  • The increasing demand for higher education. In Europe, falling birthrates go hand in hand with rising demand for higher education, which is likely to rise in the next few years, partly because some governments intend to increase the proportion of university graduates in the total population and partly because lifelong learning creates new learning needs arises.
  • The internationalization of teaching and research. European universities attract fewer foreign students and, above all, fewer foreign researchers than American universities. There were approximately 450,000 foreign students in Europe in 2000, and more than 540,000 in the US, the majority of whom are from Asia. In addition, far more foreign students go to the USA to study engineering, mathematics and computer science as postgraduates than to Europe, and more foreigners stay in the USA after completing their doctorate: around 50% of Europeans who graduate in acquired in the United States will remain there for several years, and a considerable part will even stay there for a long time. European universities are much less attractive to researchers and students. This is partly due to the fact that they often do not have the necessary "critical mass": This is why they are moving closer and closer together by building networks or creating joint courses and degrees. Other reasons, outside the university, also play an important role e.g. the lack of flexibility in the labor market or the less pronounced entrepreneurship, which corresponds to fewer job opportunities in the innovative areas.
  • The development of effective and close cooperation between universities and business. University-business cooperation needs to be stepped up and geared more towards innovation, the creation of new businesses and, more generally, knowledge transfer.
  • The fact that knowledge is being generated in more and more places. The tendency for companies to increasingly outsource their research activities to the best universities means that the environment in which universities develop is increasingly competitive.
  • The reorganization of knowledge. It comes into play in two developments: On the one hand, a growing diversification and specialization of knowledge can be observed, which in research and teaching leads to ever more specific and narrower areas of specialization. On the other hand, the academic world urgently needs to adapt to the interdisciplinary approach to major societal problems; Keywords here are, for example, sustainable development, the new serious diseases and risk management. The activities of the universities, especially in the area of ‚Äč‚Äčteaching, are, however, often still organized according to the traditional canon of subjects.
  • The rise of new expectations. Universities must respond to new educational needs arising from the knowledge-based economy and society. To be mentioned here is, among other things, the increasing demand for scientific and technical education, for interdisciplinary skills and for offers for lifelong learning, which requires greater permeability between the institutions or levels of the education and training systems.

The universities and what is at stake for Europe

Human resource excellence largely depends on the financial resources available, but also on working conditions and career prospects. In general, career prospects at European universities with their characteristic differences in status are limited and restricted by factors of uncertainty. Thus, European universities face many challenges and much is at stake for them. This communication focuses on three aspects:

  • Ensuring the constant availability of sufficient funds for European universities Teaching and research at European universities are usually financed by public funds. Other sources of income come into question, for example
  • Creating the conditions for excellence in research and teaching This communication calls on European universities to identify the areas in which the various universities have achieved or can rightly expect to achieve the excellence found necessary at European or international level - and then focus resources to support academic research. The concentration of research funds in a few areas and institutions will result in greater university specialization, which will make it possible to achieve adequate quality in certain areas at national level and to ensure excellence at European level. Contrary to the current trend among European universities of mainly recruiting applicants from their own country or region or even from their own institution, the communication proposes increasing not only intra-European mobility, but also mobility between universities and industry. This would open up new professional perspectives for young researchers.
  • Greater opening of universities to the outside world and increasing their international attractiveness For European universities, greater international opening means that they must increasingly compete with universities on other continents - especially with the American ones - in order to attract the greatest talent from all over the world to keep. While European universities accept almost as many foreign students as American universities, they attract proportionally fewer excellent students and academics. Overall, the European universities actually offer a less attractive environment: this applies to the financial, material and working conditions as well as to the unsuitable and poorly harmonized provisions in the field of visas and residence permits for foreign students, university teachers and researchers EU regions are encouraged to play an important role in strengthening cohesion in Europe through the establishment of technology centers and science parks, the dissemination of structures for regional cooperation between business and universities, the increased elaboration of regional development strategies by the universities, the networking of Universities at the regional level.


To enable European universities to play a crucial role in realizing the strategic objective set by the Lisbon European Council - to make the Union the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world - this communication aims to initiate a debate on this what role universities should play in Europe's knowledge-based economy and society. The origin and growth of the knowledge society and the knowledge-based economy depend on four interrelated elements: the creation of new knowledge, its transmission through education and training, its diffusion through information and communication technologies, and its application in industry and new services. In this process, the universities are the real protagonists.


Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of February 15, 2006 on enhanced European cooperation for quality assurance in higher education [Official Journal L 64 of 4.3.2006].

Communication from the Commission of 10 January 2003 "Investing effectively in education and training: a necessity for Europe" [COM (2002) 779 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Communication from the Commission of 20 April 2005 "Awakening Europe's intellectual potential: How universities can make their full contribution to the Lisbon Strategy" [COM (2005) 152 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Recommendation 98/561 / EC of the Council of September 24, 1998 on European cooperation for quality assurance in higher education [Official Journal L 270 of October 7, 1998].

Last change: April 19, 2006