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Michael Murphy, President, European University Association

A former president of the University College Cork, Michael Murphy is currently half way through a four-year stint as president of the European University Association, which represents over 800 universities and rectors’ conferences across 48 countries. At a time of mounting global challenges, Murphy spoke with The PIE News about the role of universities in society and the challenges they are facing.


EuropePhoto: EUA

"Europe is, rightly, sending out the message that for our partnerships to work there has to be reciprocity and trust."

The PIE: Let’s start with talking a bit about your role as president of the EUA. What do you do, and what aspects of the sector are you most focused on?

Michael Murphy: EUA’s agenda is extremely broad. It covers the whole spectrum of what universities do, in research, teaching, learning and community engagement in 48 different countries across Europe.

The diversity in the challenges that are posed to each of the countries is extraordinary. My role is to encourage collaboration among our member universities, to share strengths, provide mutual support, and to represent the interests of universities to the outside world. The world is changing rapidly and strong universities are critically important to support society in dealing with rapid change.

The PIE: Can you explain what some of these challenges are?

MM: A university’s primary role is to serve the needs of society. We have a very important role to play in research, but, equally importantly, to prepare citizens with the skills they need to cope with challenges.

“A university’s primary role is to serve the needs of society”

The sustainability of the planet right now is number one, followed by digitalisation and the impact that it is having especially in the workplace. There are also demographic changes that vary across Europe, democracies under stress because of polarisation and misinformation, and geopolitical changes as the world shifts from unipolar to multipolar power configuration.

And then there’s the pandemic of course to make it all more interesting. These are unprecedented challenges.

The PIE: So where does the EUA come into dealing with these issues?

MM: We provide a forum where universities can share learning and best practises to ensure that all are positioned as well as possible to cope with the challenges.

Secondly, we represent the sector to power holders such as the European Commission, Parliament and Council, and then each of our national associations has to engage with their governments.

And we represent Europe’s universities at a global level.

The PIE: You’ve also spoken previously about the role of universities. Do universities need to work more with employers to ensure graduates are prepared for the job market?

MM: Yes, we have to ensure that graduates are ready for the workplace. Of course, employers would like to get graduates out of universities and sitting productively in the company next morning.

Universities have a broader view of the purpose of education. We are here to help educate people for life and not only for a job.

But I think we can do a better job than we have up to now by engaging more with business and all elements of civic society to provide students with experiential learning and to ensure that what we teach is fit for purpose.

My background provides a classic example of what we’re talking about. In training as a doctor roughly half my time was spent in the university and half was spent in practical learning. So the necessary education model exists and must be applied more widely.

The PIE: Two studies published in the last few months have brought up the issue of conflicts of interest among ranking companies. Do rankings have a role to play in the sector?

MM: My bias is in favour of ranking systems that are not commercial. I chair the advisory board of U-Multirank, which is not a ranking system. It measures performance, it grades performance, but it makes no claims about the superiority of one institution over another.

Measurement of performance is important in any sphere of activity. Rankings are complicated by the fact that many of the aspects of university activity are not easily measured. Sometimes the unimportant things are easily measured and the important are not. Rankings emphasise those aspects that are easily measured.

Then, universities are extremely diverse. Some are very research intensive. Others are focused almost exclusively on the education of a regional workforce. You can’t say one university is better than another using a one-size-fits-all approach.

“You can’t say one university is better than another using a one-size-fits-all approach”

Unfortunately, some governments use rankings as determinants of investment. That leads universities to change their roles and change their strategic plans to make them more like the institutions that do well in rankings, even though their regional or national society doesn’t need that role or function. So rankings can have a distorting effect on the missions of universities.

The PIE: You’ve also spoken about academic freedom at universities being under threat. What is happening?

MM: Universities have to enjoy the freedom to do what they believe needs to be done to address societal issues. Protecting that freedom is important.

The freedom to speak out, teach and do research in certain areas can be restricted because governments may feel that it would undermine their position.

A second challenge is that, for very good reasons, governments and the European Commission have been driving what we call mission-led research. In other words, setting out what they’re prepared to fund.

The freedom of researchers to pursue things that they are important for the longer-term but not really in the interests of governments of the day is diminishing and it’s a space we have to watch.

Thirdly, society demands accountability from universities that society is funding. While it’s for a good reason, the mechanisms that are used can also be used to further direct what should happen within universities.

The PIE: Opinion in the EU recently seems more wary of working with partners in countries like China and Iran. How does this fit into threats to academic freedom?

MM: I think we are more acutely aware in recent times that Europe has been a little naively too open in the way it engages in international cooperation.

What we wish to see is everybody engage in this space with the same commitment to openness, to sharing and exploiting new findings together. There are countries that don’t play by the same set of rules.

Europe is, rightly, sending out the message that for our partnerships to work there has to be reciprocity and trust.

But overall, I think we in the university sector have to do more within the sector to influence global policy and practices.

If we are to find solutions to global challenges, we really do have to make sure that the entire global capacity for research and education is coordinated, collaborative and in partnership.

That’s the space we need to focus on in the coming months and years, building a global university sector.

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