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Why Europe's Universities Need 'Stress Testing' Even More Than the Banking Sector

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Since the 2008/09 financial crisis, the concept of 'stress testing' has assumed a much higher prominence in the business world. Right now, for instance, the European Banking Authority is supervising a new round of tests, with results to be announced this Autumn, to gauge resilience of banks to financial shocks.

Of course, stress tests are key to assessing the health of the financial system, and it is important that we do all we can to prevent a recurrence of the crisis. However, it is not just the banking sector, and related industries such as insurance, which should be subjected to similar testing.

The university system is perhaps even more important for determining Europe's economic future as the financial sector, yet the amount of resources devoted to the health and wellbeing of higher education pale into insignificance in comparison. This is a colossal error of judgement that, unless remedied fast, the continent will live to regret.

It is now some 15 years since the landmark June 1999 Bologna agreement was envisaged by Europe as a means of boosting the global competitiveness of the continent's higher-education system. Yet, instead of propelling sustainable success, much of the sector is now facing its greatest ever crisis.

State funding is being cut, European universities are dropping down the international rankings and less research is being produced than is needed to ensure that innovation drives Europe's growth. In short, a 'perfect storm' is forming that is exacerbated by politicians and policymakers.

The parlous state of the higher education sector will be underlined, yet again, soon in an original, innovative and ground-breaking book by Associate Professor Alexandra den Heijer and George Tzovlas who has benchmarked more than 800 of Europe's education institutions - http://managingtheuniversitycampus.nl. It highlights the fact that many university campuses are simply not 'fit for purpose' - often dating back to the 1960s and 1970s and requiring major re-investment.

To be sure, in their rhetoric about the importance of the knowledge economy, some European politicians and policy-makers recognise that change is badly needed. But, for the most part, their policies are characterised by inconsistency and short-termism, as is their funding of high education.

The result is that less of the sector's potential is being used at a time when the European economy's need for a thriving university system has never been greater. Like much of the financial sector, universities are also 'too important to fail'!

What can be done to help turn this situation around? Clearly, this is a complex question, and I will intentionally simplify the debate for now by restricting my argument to just one topic that is often neglected, even denied, by policymakers and politicians in Europe.

It must become a super-priority for the continent to enhance its higher education facilities to attract the very best academics, researchers and students. Today, as the research of den Heijer and Tzovlas shows, universities have growing potential to become economic growth engines that facilitate the attraction and retention of knowledge capital, enhance competitiveness in the global 'battle for brains', and enable economic innovation.

Yet, many European campuses are in very poor functional and physical condition. And the strategic prioritisation of this reform agenda, both by governments and some universities, is completely missing.

One of the solutions, in this context, is for Europe to extend the concept of stress tests from the financial sector to universities. In practice, this would mean conducting university campus stress testing to assess robustness and how 'fit for purpose' Europe's higher education and research infrastructure is, and ensure that scarce resources are spent most effectively.

As the research of den Heijer and Tzovlas indicates, the outcomes of such stress tests would be chilling and underline the extent to which European higher education is not just losing ground to other developed countries such as North America, but also new poles of academic excellence in key emerging markets such as China and India. The need for radical reform, however, would become crystal clear.

Some critics will argue that campus benchmarking is unrealistic and/or impractical. However, Delft University of Technology, where I am president, is already experimenting with a model that will assess European campus plans and strategies, and help ensure that resources are spent in a smart way. We hope to receive support from the European Commission to develop the tool in order to make it available to other universities.

Sharing knowledge about campus benchmarking and management in such a way will help us map the readiness of Europe's higher education infrastructure to engage global competition. And, crucially, pin-point key areas of deficiency, just as banking stress tests do.

Taken overall, it is high time that politicians and policymakers recognised that stress testing is badly needed across the European higher education landscape. While the results would be troubling, the transparency of this exercise may at least help catalyse the radical change that is needed to transform our university sector.

15 years after Bologna, the time to act is now. If we fail to do so, the situation may become irretrievable with Europe permanently consigned to a second tier of global higher education.

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