Fri, Jan 11, 2013 - Page 9 News List

European universities failing 21st-century students

Outmoded teaching, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of money — the failings of European universities are coming under the microscope by the EU and others looking for ways to improve graduates’ job prospects

By Greg Keller  /  AP, PARIS

Illustration: Mountain People

Estelle Borrell knew she wanted to work in law since she was a teenager, when she interned at a court in Versailles, France.

“The lawyers in their black robes, they were like gods to me,” the 24-year-old Parisian said.

Borrell studied law at Vienna University, where she dreamed of putting her passion into practice at an international organization. She got a shock when she began working at a Vienna law firm.

“I knew how to resolve cases on paper, but when I got into the law firm it was really ridiculous,” Borrell said. “My boss asked me to call a judge and I was absolutely not able to do it. I didn’t even have the vocabulary I needed to do a really simple call.”

Borrell, who is now back in France seeking work while continuing legal studies in Paris, had found out firsthand what educators, industry and governments across the continent are slowly coming to acknowledge as globalization intensifies competition and a devastating economic crisis swells youth unemployment: Europe’s universities, many founded during the Middle Ages, are failing to prepare students for the demands of the 21st-century world.

Outmoded teaching, overcrowded classrooms and even broken windows are common complaints by both teachers and students at French universities — even the Sorbonne, one of Europe’s oldest and most illustrious schools. Classes often begin with a hunt for spare chairs as classrooms built for 20 students regularly pack 40 or more. Sometimes students are forced to sit on tables or the floor. On Twitter, students post such complaints as: “Monday morning 9:00 in the constitutional law lecture at Paris 8, freezing my toes off, not very fun.”

Recently, a group of overwhelmed instructors at Paris University published an open letter to France’s education minister in daily newspaper Liberation to voice their frustration and call for the repeal of a reform that decentralized university control, which they blame for many of the universities’ woes.

In Spain, where universities are in even more dire financial straits, the heads of about 50 state-run universities recently made a joint statement warning of “irreparable deterioration” in education as crisis cutbacks choke academic institutions and threaten to hold back economic recovery.

Officials recognize the problem.

The European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Federation of European Employers all have studies under way to examine why the continent’s universities are failing. The research aims to identify ways to better match universities’ output with the needs of employers, and hopefully help improve the job prospects of Europe’s graduates.

The failure of Europe’s universities is also reflected in their weak showing in the most closely-watched barometer of university performance — Shanghai Jiaotong University’s annual ranking of the world’s universities, which places only two European universities, Oxford and Cambridge, in the top 20. The Shanghai Ranking focuses on research, looking at things such as the number of Nobel Prizes and citations in top academic journals, but experts see a correlation between a faculty’s academic caliber and quality of education.

And it’s precisely the failings of European university teaching that are now increasingly being put under the microscope.

A recent study in Britain showed that an increasingly large number of graduates are failing to find graduate-level jobs. The Futuretrack survey by Warwick University’s Institute for Employment Research showed that the number of graduates still without graduate-level jobs two years after leaving university nearly doubled to 40 percent last year compared to 10 years ago.

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