Europe cannot rely on a few elite institutions. We need a strong university network

From the beginning of July until 2023, professor of clinical pharmacology Michael Murphy (60) will be President of the European University Association (EUA), an organization which brings together over 800 universities from 46 European countries. Professor Murphy is the first Irish person to be President of EUA.

At a time of strong American and ever-growing Asian competition, persistent wide gaps between western European universities on one hand and eastern European universities on the other, the upcoming Brexit and the new EU funding schemes for research, he believes it is necessary to start building closely linked university networks. “These must include universities from all parts of Europe with a strong accent on solidarity. We also need to use the excellence of European higher education to enhance the influence of Europe in the world. But it is not possible to have only a few elite institutions which allocate almost all the finance,” says Murphy.

Moreover, if Europe wants to establish itself as a world leader, it must have strong universities with high-quality research. This brings with it the need to double the budget for new European research and innovation programmes. “If Europe wants to be a strong partner, we must respect research and innovation as a crucial part of European economics,” Murphy says.

Michael Murphy’s experience in top management is broad. After more than twelve years in Britain and the United States, where he worked at the prestigious University of Chicago as a researcher, he returned to Ireland to become Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and then President of University College Cork, which he led for ten years in times of financial crisis and cuts in the Irish higher education sector.

You are the first Irish person to be President of EUA. Irish universities have done very well in the past sixty years. In the rankings, even though it is half its size in population, Ireland outperforms the Czech Republic, for instance. Do you feel universities in eastern Europe are still behind universities in western Europe, as some studies state?
At the beginning, I have to say that I am not a fan of rankings as conducted currently, with their many methodological flaws. To answer your question, yes, I do. I have visited many eastern European countries and I have seen the brain drain that has affected them and the consequent disadvantageous position of universities. That’s why I stress the concept of solidarity in constructing our university networks.

I have personal experience of such disadvantage. When I was born in Ireland in the 1950s my family lived in a house without electricity or water and where we didn’t even have an indoor toilet. That was not unusual in Ireland as it was a very poor country. We benefited greatly from European solidarity and today Ireland has a well performing economy and high-quality universities. So I know from personal experience that this journey can be achieved.

What has contributed to this?
Transition requires good leadership, wise commitment of resources to education and research, and it also requires support from other members of the EU. I think Ireland is a happy example of the benefits of solidarity programmes. So we must design our future European higher education system to include solidarity as a key objective.

But so far it seems that Europe is more inclined towards a model of less solidarity. Britain is about to leave the Union. Do you think it will weaken the position of Irish or continental schools?
Of course, Brexit is a challenge. It could disrupt connections in research and cause difficulties on both sides. UK universities are among the best in the higher education sector in the world and among the best in research, innovation and globalisation. And the potential departure of the UK from the EU will have a disruptive effect; it could endanger current relationships in research and student mobility.

Do you already know whether British schools, or their association Universities UK, will remain EUA members after Brexit?
We will continue to treat British universities as members of the European university family in the same way as before, and we will do everything possible to mitigate the potential disrupting impact of Brexit on students and university staff. But it is still possible that Brexit might not happen, and that would be the best solution for the whole university sector.

But Britain’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claims that he wants Brexit to be done at the end of October. Do you think that Ireland will establish closer ties with universities from other EU countries? Still the UK is the closest country for Ireland in terms of research collaboration.
Irish universities have always had close ties to other countries from Europe and, if my memory is correct, the most recent analysis that I saw indicates that we had slightly more collaborations with German universities than with British in the EU programmes. Irish universities have always been Europe-focused, and we have always been enthusiastic members of the European family. Irish researchers will continue to collaborate with the best research groups in Europe wherever they are and will survive Brexit as well as possible.

Brexit or not, EU research funding in the biggest programmes for research and innovation are coming to an end. Which standpoint does EUA take in the current negotiations?
If we want Europe to be a world leader, it must significantly increase its investment in research and innovation. Therefore, it must invest significantly more than heretofore in Horizon programmes.

A budget of what size would you consider proper funding?
The EUA set out a proposal that the current research budget should be doubled. There are important reasons why the target needs to be a hundred and sixty billion euros and we must persuade countries across Europe that they too should increase their budgets for research and meet the commitments that were made in Lisbon almost twenty years ago. But EU leadership in growing research investment may stimulate member-state investment growth. The current programme is quite inefficient in the sense that the success rate of funding applications is extremely low and a very large number of research proposals that are excellent are not being funded. An extremely large effort and large amounts of money are expended in preparing proposals, then wasted because project funding is not available. We are talking about almost 85% high-quality proposals submitted to Horizon 2020 which go unfunded due to insufficient budget. This is a significant waste of money and loss of potential innovation for Europe. After all, according to a commission impact assessment, every €1 spent in the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, leads to €13 in added value for industry. Further investment is a “no-brainer”.

What else would Europe need in the higher education sector to increase its influence in the world?
We need to create deeply networked universities. Encompassing institutions from all parts of Europe to harness excellence is extremely important. The solution does not lie in going down the American and Chinese route of creating a small number of elite institutions. Europe displays excellence distributed widely across the continent; we must make sure that we harness all that excellence through networking of all our institutions.

In your opinion, in future will we in Europe have strong networks of universities instead of individual universities, to stand up to ever-increasing Asian and very strong US competition?
Looking into the decades ahead, it is likely that the scale and urgency of challenges like climate change, limited resources and so on will require the world to restructure decision-making to be more responsive to challenges. It is likely more decisions will be taken at global level, by representatives of large geopolitical regions. Traditional nation-states are increasingly being grouped politically and economically into larger bodies. This is happening in Europe; it is also happening in south-east Asia and Latin America. Currently, the US and China are competing very hard for dominant influence, but I believe that Europe must also be at the top table in the decades ahead. To be there, we have to be politically and economically as strong as possible. High quality research, innovation and education will be key to our strength and universities will play an absolutely critical role – but must be deeply networked to harness excellence wherever it is in Europe. That’s why I regard the Macron initiative of 2017 so highly.

The recently selected pilot networks are a beginning; we must now evolve the process. We ourselves in the universities sector must generate proposals for the evolution of the European universities initiative; we have not done so sufficiently at this point and must do so engaging deeply with the Commission and governments to take the programme forward.

Five Czech universities have recently founded an elite research association. Do you mean such networks, too?
I think that every move that makes universities work together is a good idea. The more collaboration that takes place, the better. But I have difficulty with the concept of elite institutions. In my view, we have worked extremely hard in Europe to minimize if not eliminate inequality in opportunities for education. I fear that the establishment of a small number of elite institutions with a concentration of resources will lead to inequality in Europe of the type that we see in other parts of the world already.

Where in particular?
The United States in particular. I believe that political dysfunction in the US currently can, in large part, be attributed to inequality that has emerged in society, an inequality derived in part from inequality in access to good education, including higher education.

So you do not see a solution in closer collaboration with universities in the US?
Over many decades, the US was a leader in openness and global collaboration. But I am now worried that the US is becoming more closed and inward looking. We also see significant demographic changes in the US; shortly it will no longer be a country dominated by ethnic European citizens. And so one has to be concerned that the traditional partnership between Europe and the US may not be so open as we have been accustomed to. But we all face common problems that transcend national or even continental boundaries and they will be solved only if we all work together. It will take the combined and interlinked outputs of all global universities to solve the challenges of humanity.

We have talked about more money for research and innovation. But there is much debate about rising tension between research and teaching and complaints that pressure on research is taking money from undergraduate teaching.
Yes, there is a tendency to talk about tension between research and teaching and of course that should not be the case at all. These two functions of universities should be absolutely complementary and they should enjoy absolute parity. Universities have always had and will continue to have major roles in knowledge creation and in educating and training the next generation of citizens. But, yes, I’m of the view that we have work to do to restore parity of esteem for teaching, learning and research. They should, of course be deeply integrated and not regarded as separate, parallel and competing missions in our institutions.

But it is mainly research that brings universities money and prestige in the rankings.
We mentioned rankings early on as being important and I shared with you that I’m not a big fan of ranking because I believe that the existing ranking systems over-emphasise research, fail to measure other elements of our mission and are of doubtful validity. The quality of teaching and learning in institutions cannot be reliably compared currently by rankers; the fact that institutional reputation is now based almost exclusively on research is not healthy for the higher education sector. And we have to take very strong steps to counter perverse incentives.

Do you mean we should forget rankings? Or create our own? Could EUA be the institution to create such rankings?
It is a conversation we need to have. Rankings are probably unavoidable, but we should work with the ranking agencies to redesign them in order to give us a more holistic picture of what universities are about. We should abandon the notion of ranking universities from number one to number eighteen thousand! We should favour those methods that grade universities across a wide number of their functions. And we should examine whether the outputs of national and international quality assurance agencies might adapt their outputs to substitute for or complement ranking systems.

Talking about complexity of universities, I was interested to learn that EUA makes statements with a strong accent on academic freedom and university autonomy. Recently it issued a statement supporting a Turkish academic persecuted for her support of a peace petition. Should universities talk politics?
Universities should basically speak the truth at all times, irrespective of political consequences. Our business is discovery of knowledge and sharing it with society. We should always set out positions that are based on evidence and critical thinking, and we should speak honestly.

It is my view that we should not hesitate in setting out the facts to facilitate informed, evidence-based public debate. This is another of our useful functions in society.

What about if a country’s President refuses to appoint professors who have already been chosen by university research boards?
Obviously, university life has become more challenging in this regard in the last half-century. Higher education has been massified and governments have a greater role in funding it than they had historically. A century ago, higher education was an elite enterprise, largely funded through student fees. Now governments provide a great part of funding for universities in many countries. There is an old saying in English: “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. Governments try to exploit their financial power in the governance of universities. And yes, our EUA autonomy score card has revealed gradual restrictions on university freedoms in many countries (not all) over the years. But at the end of the day, we know that autonomous university systems are better performers and that countries that grant more autonomy to the universities are generally more successful economically. Having a government or Head of State involved in selection of university professors, as you describe, would be deemed absurd in most countries in Europe, rightly so in my view.

You have held a variety of leadership roles, including being President of University College Cork for 10 years. Have you always been interested in positions of leadership?
(laughing) No, I have never set out to be a president of anything. I started out in medicine and medical research [For twenty years, Professor Murphy was active in dealing clinical pharmacology and cardiology, e.g. he studied lowering of blood cholesterol in older people to see whether it was possible to reduce risk of heart attacks – editor’s note]. What one generally finds in life is that if one’s ambitions are constrained by the context in which you are working, the availability of buildings, facilities or people, or the policies of an institution, you logically come to the conclusion that the only way that you can succeed is by changing the rules, finding more resources. And then you discover that you must acquire the levers of power to change those circumstances. It is an evolutionary experience, and that has been my life story.

What was the most difficult decision you had to make as university president?
In my case, I guess circumstances were challenging, because I went into office when we had a financial crisis, so I had nine years of austerity budgets. Every year the university budget was cut – revenue per student fell by 25% in a decade. The government instructed us to reduce the number of staff, pay bills and pension costs. So, laying off staff was my toughest challenge. But at the end of my term and in spite of austerity, the university had grown, we had more students, we had grown the estate of the university, we had more land, more buildings, and more research facilities, and our research income was up. We proved, once again, that universities are very resilient places; very clever staff and very clever students always find ways out of a crisis. Universities have existed for a thousand years. A wise rector or president will recognise that within the university there is a lot of wisdom and experience. Being open to ideas and listening to people is probably the secret of success.

Once you said that political correctness had no place on your campus and that the role of universities was to set up a mirror to power. What did you mean by that?
One has to remember that governments come and governments go and it is very important to take the long view in making strategic decisions. One must never be overly focused on the immediate future, take a view on what society needs over the coming decades and manage the university to balance the immediate with the medium to long term. Governments change regularly, their priorities also change regularly, and it is a foolish rector who focuses exclusively on what the government of the day is interested in. Our responsibility is to society. Government is part of society, but we are not servants of the government.

On the subject of university leaders, do you think university rectors should have an academic career before leading their schools, or should they be professional managers, from the world of business, for instance?
I can share my personal opinion. A very successful academic career is a necessary requisite as you must enjoy the respect of peers in the university sector if you want to be a good university leader. You have to understand the complexity, the history and the tradition of academia in order to lead wisely. That is my personal experience and my personal view.

In north-western Europe we increasingly employ a professional methodology to try to ensure competence in leadership – world-wide search, selection by academic peers and representatives of society and, finally, approval by the university board. And even with that you can never guarantee competence, but you optimise the chances. In Ireland we abandoned the rectorship and presidency elections over twenty years ago and we now have a professional search process followed by board approval. And it is always now a global search for the best-qualified academic by a panel of experts. Having screened and interviewed the candidates they nominate a candidate to the governing authority of the university, which comprises representatives of staff, students, alumni, business and government nominees (10% of members). The authority can approve or reject the nominee.

After you spent four years working as a researcher in London, you worked as a clinical pharmacologist and in medicine for over eight years at the University of Chicago. What did this experience give you?
Hyde Park, the suburb where the university is located, houses some 80 percent of the university staff. So there is an extraordinarily vibrant intellectual engagement going on right through the community. I remember one condominium building with three Nobel laureates living in it. Shopping in the local shop with Nobel laureates was a very stimulating experience for students. What impressed me most about the University of Chicago was the absolute commitment to excellence – being the best in the world in your discipline. The institution and students embraced a value system designed to deliver excellence at all times. Mediocrity was not acceptable. And that is my most striking memory of the institution. I try to live that experience in my own career.

You talk about excellence, but isn't this American focus on excellence too much? Doesn’t it serve to increase the inequality we talked about?
No, there is a difference between elitism and excellence. Commitment to excellence is a value and that value can be held anywhere, in any institution. Regrettably, you and I both know that it is not the case; you will commonly find people who are satisfied with mediocrity. Of course, the feasibility of achieving excellence varies dramatically between different countries and different institutions; we know the same possibilities don’t exist for everybody because of historical, political or economic circumstances. But we should always try to be the best we can be. That is my definition of commitment to excellence.