Coimbra Group Policy Seminar: Interdisciplinarity in the Humanities

Neill/Hoey Lecture Theatre, Trinity Long Room Hub

28 March 2014

Good morning,

And welcome everybody to Trinity College for this seminar on “Interdisciplinarity in the Humanities”.

Some of you may have been here six years ago, for the first of these policy seminars organised by the Coimbra Group’s Culture, Arts, and Humanities Task Force.

It is now, as then, a privilege and a real pleasure to welcome to Trinity so many deans, rectors, and directors from some of Europe’s top universities. Allow me to welcome in particular the chair of the Coimbra Group executive board, Professor Dorothy Kelly, Vice-Rector (International) of the University of Granada. And allow me to thank Professor Jϋrgen Barkhoff, for his excellent organisation and hosting of today’s event.

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Trinity College, the University of Dublin, has been a member of the Coimbra Group from the start – that’s going back almost thirty years now to 1985. The Coimbra Group is one of Europe’s longest-established collaborative networks for universities.

Of course, the Group represents only a fraction of Europe’s institutes of higher education – 39 out of a reputed 3,300! But Coimbra members are high-performing multi-disciplinary universities and the geographical spread is wide - from Turkey to Portugal, and from Romania to Russia.

And more important even than this impressive geographical spread is the close co-operation and trust between Coimbra members. Twenty percent of all Erasmus mobility is to, or from, our members. That’s an impressive figure. We are united in our commitment to building a European Higher Education Area.

I’d like to talk to you, briefly, about this European Higher Education Area. What do we mean by it? How do we envisage it?

It’s interesting that the idea for this was advanced as far back as 1985, and earlier - in an era which did not enjoy the vast communication opportunities which we have today. It’s now possible for universities like Trinity to collaborate on research projects, and to offer joint masters programmes, with universities in Africa, China, and all over the world. That certainly wasn’t happening in 1985.

But vision precedes practicalities. The Coimbra founders knew only slow and costly means of communication – by post and through expensive phone calls and flights. But still, they confidently designed for a European Higher Education Area, which they saw as intrinsic to the whole European project.

The EU is built on the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – and most of us would add ‘the free movement of ideas’. The Coimbra founders envisaged a Europe where students would receive a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic education, and where researchers would meet to exchange knowledge and best practise – they would not just collaborate across national borders, but also across disciplines. The ‘free movement of ideas’ incorporates interdisciplinarity.

The European Higher Education Area serves the public good. This is, perhaps, even more true now than in 1985, because of the growth in innovation.  Universities provide the research and the graduates who link with industry to come up with solutions and technologies that the world needs, and that drive growth. 

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On three crucial indicators – student exchanges, international research collaborations, and interdisciplinarity – the area has, I think, met the founders’ vision.

Various EU instruments for higher education have helped create opportunities. Erasmus is a wonderful programme, as also is FP7 and Horizon 2020. And the ‘newest kid on the block’, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, or the EIT, has already had great results, and promises to have more. I’m on the board of the EIT, so I’m familiar with its ambitious plans for the future.

The EIT seeks to foster a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators in Europe by facilitating common working between education, research, and business. The starting point is that there is no higher education without research; and no industry, growth or innovation without skilled graduates and excellent R&D.

The aim is to get businesses, entrepreneurs, investors, universities, researchers, graduates and regulatory bodies interacting across Europe’s borders to create jobs and open up opportunities. So that, for instance, companies in north Europe can easily recruit from universities in southern Europe.

That sounds great. But it’s not really happening yet. Unfortunately we are still some way from achieving the EIT’s vision of ‘a pan-European innovation ecosystem’.

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Despite exciting advances, Europe remains less dynamic than the US or China, on a number of key indicators. Companies in the EU spend less on R&D than companies in the US, China, or South Korea. And when it comes to labour mobility, Americans are more than twice as likely to cross states to find work, than Europeans are to cross borders. And Americans are more likely to study in another state than Europeans are to study in another country.

Of course, creating a pan-European innovation ecosystem is a huge challenge. As deans and rectors of universities, we cannot solve this problem, but we can contribute to the solution and we can start asking the right questions. And we really need to, because we owe it to our staff and graduates to provide them with the opportunities that will allow them to realise their immense potential.

Here are some of the issues I think we should be raising:

First, experiential education. We should be embedding the practise of students doing internships in companies. I’d like to see all arts and humanities undergraduates doing internships in publishing, broadcasting or media companies; or in theatres, film studios, museums, galleries, or digital arts companies. Think how this would accelerate their learning!

Second, online education. Online is changing the way universities deliver courses and interact with students. It offers huge potential to promote mobility and experiential learning. An online course can bring together students, professors, and industry partners from all round Europe to offer high-level entrepreneurial training.

This brings me to my third and final issue: financing of universities. If we want quality, we have to find a way to pay for it. I don’t have all the answers here. But I know that in Europe we have a tradition of publicly funding universities and, no doubt, in some countries this is working well. This is a proud European tradition. However, it’s increasingly the case, and particularly in countries undergoing austerity measures, that tax revenues can no longer support quality ‘as we have known it’. So what do we do? Drop our standards, or find other means of funding?

I don’t think the first is an option, so we need to concentrate on diversifying revenue streams. We need to look at things like industry sponsorship, philanthropy and, probably most important of all, tuition fees. In my view, we need a variety of funding models, certainly at postgraduate, but also at undergraduate level. We need to offer students the choice. Some, or many, will prefer to pay for quality.  We have to open out, not close down, our options.

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It may seem that I have strayed from the issues under discussion at this policy seminar. But I don’t believe so. We cannot make meaningful improvements until we have the right support structures in place. To try and improve courses without taking the necessary decisions on funding is a bit like ‘moving deckchairs on the Titanic’.

The Coimbra Group has, as I have said, an influence and impact beyond its small size. I think it’s for Coimbra members to drive the discussion on the future of the European Higher Education Area. Some of you may not agree with my proposals. But I think all of you would agree on the importance of the decisions to be taken. I count on the trust and co-operation we have built up over thirty years to find a solution that will ensure the quality of higher education in Europe – and so ensure our continent’s future growth, stability and creativity.

Thank you.

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