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

Much of the blame can be placed on Europe’s economic crisis, but experts say the problem also lies with the universities themselves, which are often accused of imparting theoretical abstraction with little practical application in the real world.

Some experts complain that students need to acquire a whole new way of thinking once they leave university.

“In social sciences, arts, IT [information technology], there is an enormous transition in which you almost have to tell people to forget what they’ve been studying so that they can see again,” said Robin Chater, secretary general of the Federation of European Employers.

Chater’s organization represents multinational firms working in the EU, advising them on employment law and other matters, and also functions as a think tank focused on issues of concern to international businesses. Students’ lack of practical experience in real-world situations is an emerging cause of concern for the organization’s membership, Chater said.

That’s an experience Lucy Nicholls, a member of the Associated Press’ Class of 2012, knows well.

“I’m not saying universities should find you a job, but they should mentally prepare you for the big wide world and make you very much aware of what the climate is like,” said Nicholls, a 22-year-old fashion graduate in London. “It didn’t happen for me.”

Nicholls describes herself as “sorely disappointed” by her university education in Britain.

“I expected to have some sort of lecture on maybe how to go freelance, how to go into the world of fashion because freelance is such a big part of that industry,” Nicholls said.

The need to reform Europe’s universities has been identified by both the EU Commission and independent experts.

Although graduate unemployment at 5.4 percent is significantly lower than overall youth unemployment, university curricula “are often slow to respond to changing needs in the wider economy,” said Dennis Abbott, spokesman for the EU Education commissioner.

In an e-mail response to questions, Abbott said courses should be better tailored to the needs of the labor market, better guidance should be given in selecting courses and students should be given more opportunities to develop entrepreneurial and work-relevant skills as part of their studies.

That’s precisely what Nicholls found lacking in her fashion studies.

“I really just wasn’t given any opportunities,” she said. “I was very disappointed and I think the [university] could and should have done so much more.”

Data from the EU Commission show the disparity that exists between the EU and the US in terms of spending on university education, one factor that has been identified as a cause of European universities’ underperformance.

Total public and private spending on higher education in the EU accounts for 1.3 percent of GDP, compared to 3.3 percent in the US, according to EU figures cited in a 2008 report by the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank. On a per student basis, that translates to annual spending of 8,700 euros (US$11,400) in the EU versus euros 36,500 in the US, Bruegel says.

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