One of the reasons for European universities’ limited potential for helping their respective societies solve their problems is modest collaboration among them, particularly compared to the situation in North America and parts of Asia. This is quite a paradox for today, knowing that the concept of a modern university was developed more than two centuries ago in Europe—in 1806 by the German nobleman Friedrich von Humboldt.

It seems that nowadays many European universities interpret their guaranteed academic independence as a platform for distancing themselves from the daily challenges of their societies, in line with old-fashioned academism. While this is, but only to some extent, understandable and even acceptable, going one step further and underestimating even the benefits of collaboration with other universities is certainly one step too much!

A very graphic illustration of the above assessment is the number of European universities actively involved in the existing alliances—for example, in the European University Alliance, with only 130 members from the total of 1,706 European universities.

The limited scope of productive inter-university collaboration is also reflected in the slow and modest achievements of the objectives of the Bologna Declaration, as recognized, for example, in the Rome Communique of 2020. It has even been noticed that interest in doing research on Bologna implementation seems to be decreasing after 2015.

Realizing these problems, the European Commission created in September 2020 (with some delay compared to other domains) the European Research Area as a logical and certainly very important component of the European integration process. On this basis, and with rising awareness of the importance of creating conditions for research and innovation collaboration, the next step was undertaken in November 2021 with the creation of the Pact for R&I. The European Commission seems to be aware that, in times of knowledge economy, a lack of integration in the R&I domain cannot avoid producing serious negative consequences for European international competitiveness. Therefore, the new ERA monitoring system, including a scoreboard, a dashboard, and an online policy platform, was also created in 2023. All this is rather promising, but it is still too early to expect tangible effects.

With the bulk of high-quality research potential being concentrated at universities and their affiliated institutes, the prime responsibility to fully activate this potential remains with the universities, and in particular with their leadership.

Fortunately, many innovation actors tend to collaborate more intensely from year to year, but too many European universities remain unaffected by this important and promising trend.

What are the reasons for the slow adjustments made by most European universities? There is consensus, or at least a general understanding, that the following factors have a major impact on the limited level of universities’ collaboration:

  • Modest international composition of teaching & research staff,
  • Insufficient funding instruments promoting international collaboration,
  • Limited share of international students,
  • Few stimuli for teachers for developing international collaboration,
  • Limited impact of graduates’ employers (wanting their future workers to have an internationally open mindset, and appropriate skills).

In present-day circumstances, exceptional achievements in training and research can hardly be achieved without intensive links among colleagues at the national and international level—sharing and evaluating experience and challenges, and understanding wider global trends and problems.

It has to be recognized that neither the European universities’ mind-frame, nor the relevant regulatory environments in most countries are sufficiently collaboration-oriented. Therefore, the modest extent and impact of national and international university collaboration are not in line with the intensity of present-day globalization, which affects not only economic activities but also research and innovation efforts.

For understandable and legitimate reasons, universities have traditionally made changes slowly and carefully. Over centuries, this has been the background for their quality and for being trusted and appreciated by the public and the respective authorities. However, the increased intensity of socio-economic and technological changes, based on innovation since the late 20th century, is putting pressure on everybody, including universities. Proactive response and timely adjustments have become the conditio sine qua non for all societal actors, including academia. The public, and particularly employers, expect that, and are not satisfied with the rather conservative attitude of most European universities, reflected in the slow modernization of curricula and limited changes towards student-centered teaching and using practical experts.

What is the nature of these changes, which are expected to be reacted upon by universities? Primarily, they represent the deep changes in society, which now recognizes only a meritocratic, not any more a hereditary elite, whose members needed university diplomas primarily to formally legitimize their privileged social position. Now, access to higher and better education has become the basic right of all citizens and the necessary enabler for people to successfully perform increasingly sophisticated jobs.

However, it is no longer only an issue of who and why has been university educated. It is equally becoming an issue of subjects completed as well as the teaching and learning methods that have been applied. For various reasons, most universities are adjusting to the new conditions and requirements rather slowly. The question is: why is this the case, in spite of essentially changed circumstances? Are they not fully aware of the important changes that have transformed society and the economy? And if they are, why are they moving rather slowly? Are there some systemic reasons, or is it in their very nature to resist change?

It is also difficult to understand why most governments are not doing more while facing these challenges. Has it anything to do with academic freedom or autonomy? If so, it is a major misunderstanding on both sides since governments are not there to tell universities what to think and how to operate, but they are primarily expecting them to adjust their pedagogical activities to present-day circumstances, which is their obvious social responsibility and in the universities’ own interest. In the USA (where universities are operating in a market environment), the best-ranked universities have more candidates than they can accept, while poorly-ranked ones run the risk of having to close down due to limited interest. This is actually happening, but only in the USA, where there have been 48 closures since 2020 and only 14 in 2023. Nothing of the kind happens in Europe.

The concept of university autonomy, or autonomization, has developed quite interestingly over centuries, featuring important regional-cultural differences but generally with growing tendencies. How should we understand this concept nowadays? Generally, it refers to managerial responsibility being transferred from the bureaucratic hierarchy to managers, who are consequently also responsible for the decisions taken.

There is actually no contradiction between the autonomy of universities and their social responsibility to adjust their curricula and teaching methods to the requirements of modern society and the economy. Quite the opposite: higher autonomy increases the responsibility of universities to adjust to modern conditions—of course, not compromising on quality—but actually achieving thereby even higher quality and societal relevance.

If understood accordingly, there should be no systemic reasons for the limited inter-university collaboration. Accordingly, one could conclude that the Bologna process supports the right understanding of academic freedom.

The following values are what the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) in 2004 described as the “principles underpinning the Bologna Process”:

  • Mobility of students and staff,
  • Autonomous universities,
  • Student participation in the governance of higher education,
  • Public responsibility for higher education,
  • The importance of the social dimension of the Bologna Process.

Having referred to the abilities and limitations of academia, as well as those of governments and the professional and general public, what about the role of students? Unfortunately, they are also not fully aware of these challenges and therefore cannot contribute sufficiently to initiating and/or accelerating the necessary changes in the curricula, neither to more student-centred teaching nor to their more active involvement in designing the pedagogical process. So, the main reason for the slow modernization of many universities is their insufficient awareness of the increased dynamics of change in society and in the economy, while many authorities underestimate the impact of the needed changes for upgrading the efficiency of the education system.

The interpretation of the Bologna process has therefore been reduced mainly to the two-cycle degree and types of university studies, in order to make European university studies more comparable to those in the USA. An important direct motive for Bologna has been to regain more international students, who were increasingly going to the USA.

As shown above, the Bologna Declaration and later documents adopted by the BFUG have actually addressed primarily the two-cycle degree structure, autonomy, student participation in governance, public responsibility, and in 2004, adding the social aspect, while the issues of curriculum modernization have not been addressed at all, which is difficult to understand!

After 20 years of the Bologna Declaration, out of 49 countries, one-third of signatories did not implement even the two-cycle degree model (3 + 2 years), which is not a very encouraging performance. For other domains of the Declaration, the results are neither more encouraging nor as quantifiable.

As online teaching is lately receiving increasing attention and its potential is still far from optimally exploited, particular attention should be given to the achievements and underutilised possibilities of the recently ever more popular online teaching and learning.

Facing the problems of limited inter-university collaboration, the European universities as well as the respective governments should pay increasing attention to the following challenges and tasks:

Compare the performance of universities among Europe, North America, and Asia, taking into account their modernization and inter-university collaboration.

  • Help to raise awareness about slow adjustments of university curricula and teaching methods among academia, responsible government services, as well as in the public and relevant media,
  • Evaluate the impact of modernization of universities on three continents (North America, Asia, and Europe), as well as select and present some good practices,
  • Introduce the potential and evaluate the actual contribution of modern universities to the economic growth and development of their respective societies,
  • Encourage the exchange and adoption of good practices among universities and responsible government departments;
  • Increase the awareness of universities, students, and others of the potential of online teaching and learning,
  • Motivate students to contribute more actively to modernising universities.