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Europe's ailing universities need _ yet resist _ turnaround to thrive in 21st century

Europe's ailing universities need _ yet resist _ turnaround to thrive in 21st century

German universities are trying to charge tuition. Paris schools are considering selection instead of open admission. Dutch colleges are pushing kids to finish faster. Greece wants to lift a ban on private universities.
Change is rattling Europe's temples of learning.
Resistance remains fierce, driven by fears of the "Americanization" _ or commercialization _ of higher education. But economic realities are overpowering those who maintain that universities should impart universal knowledge, not pave the way to a paycheck. Why? Because too many European graduates are getting welfare checks instead.
Europe's universities are _ according to international rankings, school presidents, students and EU officials _ failing to provide the skills and research the next generations need to prosper and compete with fast-advancing economies in Asia and elsewhere.
Germany, France and Italy spend just 1.1 percent of GDP on universities, nearly all of that from state funds, according to the Paris-based OECD. The United States spends more than twice that _ 2.6 percent of GDP _ with private endowments funding the majority.
Still, that may not be enough. The OECD says China and India are adapting faster than the United States and the EU and producing more high-skilled workers for 21st century needs.
Lecture halls at Europe's oldest university are crumbling. French university libraries are outdated, poorly accessible and increasingly ignored. Students receive little guidance. European college dropout rates average 40 percent. One survey found that more than a third of adults in the European Union cannot perform basic computer tasks such as using a mouse to open Internet or word processing programs.
"Many go to university because they think it's prestigious. But most of us know that we may still be working at the sandwich shop" after graduation, said Fatima Bouziane, a sociology student at the University of Saint-Denis heading to a part-time cafe job in a bleak neighborhood north of Paris.
The head of France's main employers union, Laurence Parisot, says French universities are "the shame of our nation."
Their dire state is becoming a campaign issue in elections next spring. Presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist, says the university system should be "dynamited." On the right, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a 50-percent increase in funding for higher education over five years.
"It's a miracle that France is still the world's fifth largest (economic) power, closely tailed by China, considering its weak investment in higher education. Can this continue?" the president of the Sorbonne, Jean-Robert Pitte, wrote in a book this year called "Youth _ They're Lying to You!"
Most European universities are public, and most charge no tuition, just fees. Critics argue that this system leaves education short of funds.
But opponents of market-oriented reforms being proposed across Europe fear students will become commodities for profit-centered universities, and that disciplines with limited market value will die out.
French researchers staged nationwide protests recently against perceived educational diktats from businesses interests and the government. In Greece, government proposals for the creation of private universities have provoked weekly student protests. In Germany, protesters blocked highways over several German state governments' plans to introduce university tuition fees.
Britain offers a possible look at the future.
British state universities started introducing tuition in the late 1990s, to great protest. Today, schools can charge up to 3,000 pounds (US$5,500), collected as a student loan to be paid back when graduates find steady work.
Only two European universities made it in the top 20 in the respected Shanghai Jiao Tong university ranking this year, considered a key industry measure. Both institutions were in Britain _ Oxford and Cambridge.
British universities are also increasingly selective, and are actively recruiting international students _ who pay higher tuition.
Jill Lovecy, a professor of European studies at the University of Manchester, said Britain made a political decision that universities would not be able to sustain themselves and stay internationally competitive without changing their tune.
Another reason why British universities remain competitive is English. Many EU students _ and increasing numbers from Asia _ choose Britain largely because it is home to a language that is increasingly becoming the lingua franca of the globalized world.
In the Netherlands, universities are experimenting with forcing students to pay upfront but then giving it back when they graduate. The idea is to reduce numbers of dropouts and discourage students from dragging out their studies.
Dutch universities also are trying to match the number of students in any given field to the number of jobs available. And they're toying with selection _ an idea long-resisted in European academia. Some Paris schools, too, want to become more selective.
Pan-European solutions are being proposed, too. The European Commission is pushing the EU's 25 member states to boost funding for universities and to provide grants and loans to all EU students at their colleges _ irrespective of nationality. It also wants states to recognize degrees obtained elsewhere in the EU and to send more students abroad.
Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD education directorate, summed up Europe's challenge: "The world is indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain, and open to change."
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Associated Press reporters across Europe contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-08-02 02:13 GMT+08:00