Rolf Tarrach: 'I believe universities can do more'

8 oktober 2015

Rolf Tarrach was elected to be the President of the European University Association (EUA) from July 2015 onwards. What are the main issues for universities in Europe at the moment? What is his opinion on the success rate of Horizon 2020, Open Access and the Juncker package? Neth-ER interviews Tarrach on his ambitions in his new position.

Until 2014, Tarrach was Rector of the University of Luxembourg and Professor Theoretical Physics at the Universities of Valencia and Barcelona. Prior to that, he was Dean of the School of Physics and Vice-Rector of the University of Barcelona, as well as the former President of CSIC Madrid (the Spanish Scientific Research Council).

Q: In your prior function, you helped build the University of Luxembourg. Now you are the president of the EUA, a representative organisation with more than 800 members. What do you want to achieve for European universities in your new position as EUA-president in the coming four years?

Universities are worth much more to society than they are usually given credit for. Governments should take this into account, as, if properly measured, the return on investment that universities offer is probably unmatched by any other institution. So, one of my priorities is to provide the best possible evidence of what society gets from universities, while fully recognising how difficult it is to measure meaningfully the long term consequences and impact of the three main academic activities - teaching, research, knowledge transfer. They are often imponderables and we should never forget that public and private non-for-profit universities are not companies. Hence their accomplishments and societal value cannot be measured with indicators used to assess business performance. The main challenge lies in ensuring that the difficulties and complexities we face in assessing the societal value of universities must not lead to giving it no value at all! There are fairer and more scientific ways to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Q: European universities are confronted with many different topics at the moment. Public expenditure in education and research is dropping or stagnating in most countries. Also, there is more international cooperation between universities worldwide and a greater focus on the employability and skills of students In addition, the current migration crisis in Europe can also ask a response of the European knowledge field. What are the main issues for universities in Europe at the moment and what is your vision on these developments? What should we do at an European level?

Even although the situation is changing rapidly, there is less diversity in our university systems in Europe than in the US. While most universities are active in teaching/learning, research and involved in knowledge/technology transfer, this does not mean that they all have the same mission and goals or prioritise the same activities. This diversification has been going on for some time now. As our EUA TRENDS reports show, some focus more on the local or national level, while others are more internationally oriented. Internationalisation, as such, is increasingly important for all universities as is a focus on student centred learning and improved skills. As for the very topical question of migration, universities in many countries are actively helping in supporting the integration of refugees both materially and with language learning and study opportunities. This requires, of course, proper recognition of the role of universities in these tasks by those who decide how to fund universities. And, if we don’t help, who is supposed to do it? I believe universities can do more without diminishing at all their high quality education and research output. In research, for example, we should publish less, and better. Developing new ways of setting our goals is something that Europe can do if we have the collective willpower to do so.

Q: Horizon 2020 is an important programme for European universities to fund their research programmes. Especially because the national investments in research is lagging behind. Unfortunately the success rate of the programme is very low (14.53% in the first year, compared to 23% in FP 7). In addition, the problem with payment shortages in Horizon 2020 is still urgent. What is your opinion on European research financing programmes and their success rates?

The low success rates were expected on supply and demand grounds, so we should not make a big problem of it. While we will consult our membership on their success factors, what should be done is to streamline the first evaluation phase so that it requires little work by the researchers, which would mean that a high failure rate is acceptable at the first stage. I refrain here from stating well-known facts like that research funding should be increased, as it is key to attracting and retaining the best talent that our species creates. Without this talent there will be no bright future for Europe.

Q: The proposed European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) plans to take 2.2 billion Euro’s from the Horizon programme. Pim van Ballekom, Vice President of the European Investment Bank, acknowledged in an interview of Neth-ER the chances for universities in EFSI. What is your opinion on this?

Unfortunately I think this is a red herring for universities, and it is a shame that this money was taken from Horizon 2020. Most universities will find it impossible to apply for EFSI loans, and if they do it and get them it will just increase debt somewhere that, I am afraid, will have to be repaid someday nobody knows how.

Q: In January of last year, Sander Dekker, the Dutch State Secretary for education, culture and science, decreed that 60 percent of Dutch research articles must be Open Access by 2019 and 100 per cent by 2024. Dekker explicitly choose for the ‘golden route’ in open access: no subscriptions anymore, but the authors pay for publication. Dutch universities strongly support the OA goal by negotiating significant Open Access steps as a condition for renewing the license deals with publishers. A large number of journals, however, seem to have a slight preference for the ‘green route’ (with the use of subscriptions, but the author publishes his article online in a repository). Momentum for open access in general is rising. From Dutch perspective we have noticed that success depends on a few key conditions.

Firstly  transparency of the (international) market. And here the world of universities (research institutions) and publishers collide. Secondly, clear political support is needed to make OA demands coherent, both at national and European level. It strengthens the position of research institutions. Do you recognise these conditions? How do you think EUA could contribute in this momentum to the transition of OA?

I am, though limited by my modest understanding of the different subtle aspects involved in OA, very sympathetic to the Dutch government’s position and goals and the EUA will try to assist more and better to EUA universities on this matter. Indeed, we need political support to move faster towards OA. OA will of course come in any case; yet it is to see on what ways, costs and when. 

Q: During the first six months of 2016, the Netherlands has the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. What do you hope the Dutch EU Presidency will contribute to the European higher education and scientific research?

The Netherlands is a country with an extremely performing and high quality higher education and scientific research systems, so it has the obligation to set itself ambitious goals. I would wish that beyond OA, the recognition of the broad value of higher education and scientific research for our societies is given high priority. The Netherlands is a country which can do this, and it would be a huge step forward for the whole of Europe.  

More information
Article Neth-ER: Van Ballekom ziet in EFSI kansen voor Nederland

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