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A new academic year has begun and it appears not to have gone unnoticed by the media nor the general public. For several days, there has been a lively debate on the pros and cons of an admissions test, which aims to increase the success rate of first year students. Yet, remarkably little attention has been paid to the redefined relationship between higher education and the market, which was ratified this summer when a new phase in the reform of the Flemish higher education was approved.

The integration of “academised” vocational courses in universities is part of the overall objective to adapt education and research to the needs of the market. The crucial, but often ignored question is whether such a higher education system is desirable.

EU2020

The reconfiguration of higher education is part of the EU2020 strategy that needs to get Europe’s out of its economic doldrums and aims at creating the world’s most competitive knowledge economy. Higher education plays a crucial role in this process because universities are central to the knowledge triangle between education, research and innovation, the hobbyhorse of EU2020.

They must stimulate innovation through closer cooperation with the business world in terms of research and to educate students to be more employable workforces. In short, higher education must be better tailored to the needs of the market. This brew is expected to produce growth, jobs and prosperity.

It is therefore not surprising that in the discourse of higher education, “needs of the market” and “public interest” have become synonyms. Just last week this view was echoed by employers and employees participating in a survey of Tempo Team: Both groups agreed that education should be tailored more to the needs of the market. The problem is that almost everyone blindly assumes that the EU2020 strategy is beneficial. Nevertheless, there is little evidence to believe that adjusting higher education more to the needs of the market will create societal benefits.

The triangle turns square

In terms of innovation-oriented research, large companies seem to be benefiting more from collaboration with universities then SMEs. The University Business Forum of May 2010 – an initiative of the European Commission to bring the academic world and industry together – the focus was on the involvement of SMEs in the innovation policy. The overall finding was that small businesses are not inclined to cooperate with universities in research on technological and other innovations. Difficulties in terms of communication – and scale disadvantages hinder SMEs’ participation in the innovation field.

SMEs and universities can not easily find their way to each other and they have far fewer resources to invest in such research. Testimonials about the experience of government programs that assist SMEs could bring little or no successful results. Belgian initiatives on this matter, such as IWT’s program, didn’t arouse much enthusiasm either. The conference ended with the weak conclusion that more needs to be done.
In this situation innovation policy gives a competitive disadvantage to SMEs compared to large companies and fosters monopolies. With more than 40 percent of employment in our country coming from SMEs, the knowledge triangle threatens to make our economy turn square.

Market and society

Regarding the renewed focus on education being adjusted to the market, critical reflection is lacking as well. Universities are being urged to adapt course material and give students more incentives to develop entrepreneurial skills and become more innovative. Attention to the importance of employability itself is normal. We expect from diplomas that they bear fruit in the labour market.

But if employability becomes a predominant criterion for evaluating education, other important social functions of universities are being ignored. Students whose curriculum is geared to the needs of the market, will learn how to be as efficient and profitable as possible within a company. They will look at society and the challenges it faces from the same perspective.

According to the Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire education can go two ways: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The function we want to give education in our society is a very important choice. We must dare to ask ourselves whether the logic of profit is a sound frame of reference in the light of the combination of challenges our society is facing. We are struggling with a financial-economic and a climate crisis. Market dynamics are more a cause of these crises than that they offer a sustainable solution. Thinking outside the realm of the market inspires fear in many, but believing we can create sustainable prosperity under the current state of affairs, is downright utopian. An academic education that functions independent of the pressure of the market is indispensable for society.

Frank Vanaerschot is political scientist and Benelux correspondent at ESNA, European Higher Education News Agency (Berlin)

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