Bernd Huber (left) and Kurt Deketelaere (rigth)
Bernd Huber, Kurt Deketelaere and the rector, Dídac Ramírez
«University of Barcelona is one of the largest universities in Europe and clearly adds to our intellectual strengths»
«I think LERU has been successful in establishing itself as a brand»
The LERU working group at the UB and the league representatives.
Conversation with Bernd Huber (BH), President of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and Chair of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) Board of Directors, and Kurt Deketelaere (KD), professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Secretary-General of LERU, during the first working meeting at the University of Barcelona.
The League of European Research Universities (LERU) is a European association of leading research-intensive universities founded in 2002 by twelve universities dedicated to quality teaching within an environment of internationally competitive research. By 2006, the League had 20 members, and from January 1st of 2010 it welcomes two more: the University of Barcelona and Imperial College London.
The other members of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) are the following universities: Universiteit van Amsterdam, University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Université de Genève, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, Helsingin yliopisto, Universiteit Leiden, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, University College London, Lunds universitet, Università degli Studi di Milano, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, University of Oxford, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Université Paris-sud, Karolinska Institutet, Université de Strasbourg, Universiteit Utrecht, and the Universität Zürich.
Which are the main aims of LERU?
BH: LERU was founded with the idea of forming an organization which pursues the interests of universities in basic research. Therefore, there are two important objectives. The first is to make clear the role of basic research in Europe. Basic research is a key factor in successful research strategies in Europe – it is important to have basic research, not only applied research, which tends to be particularly popular among politicians, but also basic research, which is crucial and a determining factor in the development of Europe. The second objective is to make clear that research should be pursued at universities, and this is important because universities are key drivers of the dynamic research environment in Europe and should be one of the key types of institutions at which research in Europe is pursued.
So these are the two objectives: the role of basic research and, of course, the role of universities, which is also important because there are a lot of non-university research organizations, and sometimes a certain preference is given to organized research outside universities. We are essentially working to achieve these two objectives, and this involves a lot of different projects and a lot of different areas of work. The first, for example, is publishing. We have released a number of papers
on the role of basic research at universities – for example, we have a brand paper on the 8th
Framework Programme in which we try to formulate ideas on which projects should be supported in this new funding period. We have also published policy papers, for example, on doctoral studies and on the role of universities in Europe. Therefore, we have papers which are very general and can be used as a guideline for policy discussions and we also have very specific papers which highlight specific problems in research policies.
What do you think is Europe’s current position in basic research?
KD: Obviously if you look at the present situation, China is booming – the amount of research output, the amount of research funding which is available... If you look at the United States, it has traditionally been ahead of us and is staying ahead of us, so Europe obviously has to do something about this. We must be aware that we have to get our act together and invest in research at university level. This is why it is important that we spread the message that LERU knocks on the doors of the people who can make daily decisions to accomplish that goal. It is important that the EU and, more specifically, the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, are our direct speaking partners, so that they can convince others that action must be taken and that if we do not do this we will lose out significantly in all kinds of fields, in all kinds of domains.
BH: I think that Europe has a very strong research base. We have successful research groups but we clearly face strong competition from the United States and from many countries in Asia. But we also have great opportunities to gain from investment in research at our universities and higher education institutions, and we shouldn’t pass up these opportunities. I think we can look very optimistically into the future in many respects. Of course, it requires effort – life is competitive, that’s the way it is – but we have a very good chance to be successful as a European Union.
What influence does LERU have on European research policy?
BH: We have built a very good reputation within European policy circles. There are obviously other organizations in Europe which pursue specific interests, but I think LERU has been successful in establishing itself as a brand. Our policy papers have a genuine impact on discussions within the European Union and we have a good reputation within the European Commission, so I would argue that LERU has so far proved to be a success. Part of the success story is that we used to have only a part-time Secretary General – LERU was initially a very small organization – but we have now expanded considerably by increasing the staff. We have a Secretary General working more or less full time and actively pursuing the projects of the LERU organization. I think there is now a clear expectation from the public and from various other university networks for LERU to make a significant contribution to discussion in Europe.
KD: For example, the paper we produced on research in Europe was a very detailed comparison of our members, of how research careers are built up in European universities. This has now led, for example, to the creation of a specific working group within the European Commission into research, to look at research careers in a comparative way, and our paper is one of the leading documents. For example this year we have brought out a new paper on FP8, and we have formally sent it to a number of Commission officials – the reactions were very positive, invitations were coming in for participating in working groups. I think that you can certainly see that our influence has grown, that LERU has evolved significantly. First, of course, as a new organization in 2002 we had to cement a specific position in Brussels, and we did that through a number of very high-level, high-quality and very well-received long-term policy papers. We are now adding to that a number of very specific advisory papers on specific topics which are on the daily agenda of the Commission and which are very well received, and from the talk that we had with Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, it was very clear that her policy is very much in line with the ideas that we are pursuing, and she has asked for our help with specific issues that she has on her table, how LERU can contribute to solving these problems.
BH: To some extent, LERU also serves as a role model for other universities. Almost 20% of all European Research Council grants are awarded to LERU universities.
What is the role of the University of Barcelona in LERU?
BH: We are very happy and very proud that the University of Barcelona has joined us and we are confident that Barcelona will make a significant contribution to the development of the LERU network. Spain is one of the most important Member States of the European Union and I think it marks a great step forward that Barcelona, as a representative of Spain to some extent, has now joined our LERU organization.
Barcelona is typical of the type of university we have in our network. It’s a comprehensive university covering all fields of teaching and research, with faculties for medicine, science, humanities, social science, law... It follows the pattern of the many other universities in LERU. Barcelona is one of the largest universities in Europe and clearly adds to our intellectual strengths. It offers the perspective of a Southern European country – a Mediterranean country – on the development of European research policy, so the contribution of the University of Barcelona is complimentary to what our other universities have to offer. I’m very confident that this will strengthen our position in Europe, because we can now claim to have one of the most important Spanish universities on board as part of the organization, making a direct contribution to discussions and to pursuing our policies.
Will LERU look to increase its membership in the future?
KD: The Rectors have now decided that LERU will be closed to new universities until 2014, at which point we will re-evaluate the situation. The recent enlargement, with the inclusion of Imperial College London and the University of Barcelona, was not down to a need for new members but because we were convinced that these were two very important partners that we should have on board. We have never made any adjustments to our policy to admit a particular universities – it was not the case that since we did not have any Southern European members we suddenly decided that we needed one, but simply that we were convinced that the UB is a very good university, a very comprehensive university.
BH: We wanted to create a small organization. We are sometimes accused of being exclusive to some extent, but this exclusiveness is key to our success, because each member university has to make a contribution to the success of the organization, each university has to make a commitment. Because the organization is so small, everybody has to participate and add to the discussions, and that can only be maintained in a relatively small organization. If you have two hundred members it is different for each university to play a specific role.