2014 is a landmark for the EU with the recent European Parliament elections, and appointment of a new Commission President. With economic recovery underway, there is opportunity to reignite growth, improve competitiveness, and tackle youth unemployment.
Enhancing education and research infrastructures, such as laboratory facilities and digital learning networks, are a vital part of the solution. These have helped drive some of the world's greatest scientific discoveries, and play an increasingly important role in diffusing knowledge and technology to enhance prosperity.
The good news is that Europe is potentially in a strong position to seize this agenda. And, in Brussels, its importance is taken seriously. Indeed, at a time when the overall EU budget has decreased for the first time ever, programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 continue to receive significant funding increases.
However, the truth is that Europe is still falling behind other areas of the world on this agenda. Part of the reason is that education largely remains a national-level responsibility and the record of individual countries is uneven.
This reflects not just lack of prioritisation in some member states. In addition, there are post-crisis budget cutbacks, plus the fact that many member states are not using EU Structural and Investment Funds for funding research infrastructures, despite encouragement from Brussels.
The undisputed world leader, right now, in the arena of research and educational infrastructures is the United States. While the US model of higher education has drawbacks, it has smartly re-channeled public and private funding to deliver innovation.
A good example is the 60 million dollars venture, edX, which Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created. EdX has around 50 members worldwide, hosts 150 online courses from 32 universities free-of-charge, and has registered around 1 million learners in two years. Its massive potential is underlined by the fact that more people have signed up for MOOCs at Harvard in a single year than have attended the university in its 377-year history!
However, education and research success is not just about absolute levels of investment. Perhaps as important is the need to invest more smartly in education and research infrastructures.
But what does such smart investment look like?
Firstly, setting the right priorities.
Currently, 77% of the Erasmus+ budget is spent on mobility for nearly 500,000 higher education students and teachers/lecturers per year. That makes a real difference, but still only impacts less than 2% of Europe's 20 million students.
At the same time, no clear budget line exists for development of open and online education infrastructures. Some 28% of Erasmus+ is allocated to "cooperation for innovation and exchange of good practices", including online education, but not investment in infrastructures, such as research labs.
Of Horizon 2020's budget, just 3% is allocated to new research and education infrastructures. This covers only about 1% of the cost of all European research and education infrastructure which are vital for innovation and for improving competitiveness.
Secondly, greater synergy is needed between Europe's programmes, including Horizon 2020, Erasmus+ and Europe's Smart Specialisation Strategies. By combining these and designing smarter ways to invest, there is significant opportunity to enhance outcomes.
To be sure, some positive steps have been taken in this direction. For instance, the EU Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) which integrate all three sides of the 'knowledge triangle (higher education, research, and business). Unfortunately, however, KICs are currently exceptions in a fragmented landscape.
One key 'missing' way that synergy can be driven between research and education is blended learning. That is, offering online education in combination with face to face, practical class room learning and lab time.
Despite this context, there are European success stories. Some institutions, such as Delft University of Technology, Edinburgh University, Carlos III in Madrid, Leiden University and EPFL, have gotten ahead of the curve, invested heavily in online education, networks, and staff training and cemented - for now - their position among the core group of global innovators.
Just like institutions such as Harvard, the collective goal for these European trailblazers is developing worldwide, highly available online education with excellent research and education infrastructure to enhance accessibility to higher education.
However, support and funding, applied in a smarter fashion, is badly needed to maintain the international position of these European front-runners who are succeeding 'against the odds'. Such investment will benefit others too indirectly because, if these trailblazers maintain their edge, they will become beacons of success that will encourage and assist counterparts that have just (or not yet) started this journey.
Moreover, if Brussels and national governments get this funding equation right in coming years, the private sector is likely to increasingly come on board too with finance. The reason is self-interest because it is not just young people, but also lifelong learners (and thus the firms that employ them), that will benefit from top class education and research infrastructures.
To be sure, the challenges to realising this vision are significant. But the return on investment will be high for Europe if we get it right, including: a reinvigorated research and education infrastructure, attraction of the best students and faculty, a better skilled workforce, and enhanced competitive advantage vis a vis the rest of the world.