The competences issue in the entrepreneurial university
The higher education issue at the beginning of the twenty-first century
Nowadays, education represents one of the most active areas within the social framework characterized by reflection, analysis, confrontation and attitude taking. The notions of ‘crisis’ and ‘quality’ are two of the attributes that obsessively appear in the discourses of the experts in sciences of education. Although at first glance the two terms seem contradictory, in fact they are interdependent, raising a very interesting dialectic: without break-ups and controversies, there cannot be changes or improvements. Extensive reforms of the educational systems both at pre-university and university levels reflect profound changes occurring in contemporary society. As far as higher education is concerned, the last decade faced ample reform, which became synonymous with the initiative of developing the European Higher Education Area.
Without claiming to systematically or exhaustively cover the most controversial themes in the higher education sector, we mention, as context, some of the main issues that focus experts’ attentions: the relationship between university, progress and the labour market; the university’s role in training students and teachers for the twenty-first century; the training crisis; the actual needs of the new generations of students; the place occupied by professional practice within training programmes; and the growing complexity of the instruction process.
The university – and the term is used here to refer to all higher education institutions – has experienced extensive restructuring, especially in the twentieth century. Without abdicating its centuries old ‘mission’, its goals have been constantly changing within a process parallel to political, social and economic reforms. Among the newly embraced missions adding themselves to the old ones, we note the following: the implementation of research developed by the universities, mobility of the labour force represented by graduates, the tendency towards globalisation, and openness towards intercultural and internationalism. However, the university continues to be the temple of culture, science, intellectual reflection, criticism, and human development in all its plenitude, whilst at the same time aiming for professionalisation and for the development of specialists ready to seize top-level occupations and jobs.
In March 2000 at Lisbon, the EU Heads of States and Governments agreed on an ambitious goal: making the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion by the year 2010. The first benchmark derived from this goal focuses on preparing the transition to a knowledge-based economy and society by better policies for an information society and for research and development, as well as by stepping up the process of structural reform for competitiveness and innovation and by completing the internal market. The second benchmark concentrates on modernising the European social model, investing in people and combating social exclusion, while the third one focuses on sustaining a healthy economic outlook and favourable growth prospects by applying an appropriate macro-economic policy mix. Actually, a knowledge-based economy cannot exist unless the production of knowledge and its exploitation into economic processes are interconnected. Thus, it is not the stock of knowledge that will trigger the knowledge-based economy, but its availability and its efficient use for economic processes. Therefore, the economic system will not become more competitive unless the knowledge producer, the academic system, is able to convert the new knowledge into inputs for economic processes. Peter Drucker argues that knowledge is not only a new resource added to the traditional factors of production – labour, land, capital – but the only resource which bears real significance today. Knowledge has become the resource triggering progress and competitiveness, while the capacity to innovate has become dependent on the available intellectual stock. The intellectual capital able to produce new knowledge and innovation drives competitiveness. In this context, the duty of all stakeholders is to accompany the entry of enterprises and universities into this knowledge society, a society where the creation of value implies innovation, creativity, participation and competitiveness on a worldwide scale. Furthermore, competitiveness in terms of innovation involves research that ensures quality knowledge, education and training, which may result in the development of competences and the high quality of the intellectual stock requested by employers. Thus, the university becomes the key institutional resource of the European knowledge-based economy.
In Europe, the universities remain the main producer of knowledge and competences. As dynamic actors of social and economic systems at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the private and state universities find themselves in a moment of disequilibrium, the end of which is difficult to predict. The primary cause of this situation is due to one very simple fact: the multiple requests imposed on the universities exceed their capacity to respond adequately. In this situation, current decisions regarding educational policy will definitely mark the future evolution of higher education.
According to UNESCO, the central aspects of higher education’s evolution in the last 35 years are its quantitative expansion accompanied by progressive underlying of access inequality, the differentiation of institutional, curricular and instructional structures, as well as financial restrictions. One should take into account this last aspect, the diminishing of university financing, because it has affected the general functioning of the higher education institution, induced a decay in academic quality and reduced research activity. In many countries, the increase in student numbers does not necessarily imply a real enhancement of resources coming from public funds, and on the contrary, this aspect has brought into play different tertiary finance sources such as contracts for research activity, agreements with companies and foundations, private financing, increase of school taxes and so on.