The speech of Pavel Telička at the THE Excellence Summit in Olomouc

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me thank you for your kind invitation today. I am glad to be here since this topic lies particularly close to my heart. I also congratulate you on this conference. A conference that could not have had a better timing: It falls in a time when the topic of research and education has gained renewed momentum. While this might not come as a surprise to many of you, it has been a topic that has been off the radar screens for policy-makers in Europe for some time. This was partly due to the sheer number of other topics in recent years and partly due to the oftentimes - in my opinion - unjustified criticism of the Bologna process. So where does this new interest stem from?

Obviously, one can come up with many different reasons but certainly it has to do with President Macron’s famous Sorbonne speech from September last year. One might think that his initiative calling for building up some 20 top European universities by 2024 is not exactly a new idea. But even if it is not the most original concept, it has certainly drawn a lot of public attention.

The European Commission has reacted by publishing a Communication with proposals that would lead the way towards a European Education Area. And the whole city of Brussels is currently debating the future of the next financing instrument for research and development. Most of us would agree that it is high time for a concerted effort. According to international rankings, out of the 50 best universities in the world, only 10 are located in the EU. And even worse, no EU27 university makes it into the top 25. In the globalised world, the EU is now feeling the squeeze from other continents that have accelerated growth and development - also in research and education.

Therefore, I would like to focus my speech on two main issues. In the first part, I will briefly touch upon the question why the European Education Area is a good idea; while the second part will mainly focus on how we can improve our financial instruments for research and development to better fit the challenges of today.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in Europe, we face a stubborn paradox. On the one hand, we see levels of unemployment which are, in several countries, unacceptably high. At the same time, we see around two million job vacancies across Europe. A considerable amount of employees do not seem to possess the right mix of skills for today’s job market. In fact, 40% of European employers report having difficulties finding people with the right skill set they need to grow and innovate. This is the so-called 'mismatch' of skills which increasingly holds our attention. Today, only a quarter of our total workforce is educated to that level. This is the measure of the task we face. We need to step up our game and help students not only to enter tertiary educational programmes, but also to leave universities with qualifications that will actually meet the demands of the labour market.

Of course, the mismatch of skills is not the only challenge we face when it comes to university education in Europe. Despite the general success of the Bologna process, many obstacles still remain. This relates, for instance, to the mobility of students and mobility between institutions - a factor mostly overlooked.

Higher education school diplomas are still not fully recognised by other Member States, which means young adults face unnecessary obstacles to taking up studies or work abroad. This is a lost opportunity for equipping young people with a good education and a hindrance to the free flow of ideas, impeding the work of universities, research and innovation. It also represents a remaining obstacle to a truly integrated European labour market. Therefore, it is high time for proposals on the mutual recognition of diplomas as announced by the European Commission.

In addition, there are many administrative and bureaucratic obstacles that hinder universities, higher education institutions and other training providers from working seamlessly across borders. What we need is to work towards truly European universities, which are enabled to network and cooperate across borders, compete internationally and apply for common grants.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is important that Europe remains an attractive place to study and that in the future more European universities ascend to the top end of international rankings. Therefore, I strongly believe that a full-fledged European Education Area could help to address the challenges ahead by boosting mobility and facilitating cross-border cooperation, by creating world-class universities and by driving innovation in education in the digital era. On the 16th of May, the College of Commissioners will discuss a new education package and I very much hope that some of the elements I just presented will find their way into the Commission’s proposals.

Joint EU efforts within research have celebrated significant success over the past decade, through programmes such as the European Research Council - and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions aimed at increasing mobility for European researchers. If done right, it could entail a much-needed building up of Europe as a first-class education, research and innovation hub. The added value we will gain from closer and more strategic cooperation can potentially create the best facilities in the world.

Needless to say, ambitions like these do not come for free. Endeavour like these can only be undertaken by allocating substantial funding to the concept, as well as ensuring the administrative demands for participation are kept at a minimum. Without these steps, the idea will never have the chance to become the next European success story.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me therefore focus my remaining speech on this aspect because it is here that the EU can make a big impact. As the current financing scheme for research under Horizon 2020 comes to an end in less than two years, the debate on the future Framework Programme is already in full swing. And let me start out by making some general comments.

While EU-level Framework Programmes have evolved over the years and increased in scope, scale and importance, Member States have not always prioritised EU-wide research, development and innovation to the same extent as in their own national agendas and budgets. 

Statistics on Research and Development intensity over the past several years shows that investments within the EU have stagnated. Worryingly, the EU is well behind South Korea, Japan and the United States. The sad reality is that we are far from attaining the EU2020 headline target of 3% of GDP invested in Research & Development by 2020.

The latest data also shows that funding to universities has been decreasing in 15 out of 28 higher education systems since 2008. Such trends of course undermine any attempts to further advance a European Research Area or the European Higher Education Area.

At the same time, extensive evaluations over the years have clearly shown the value that EU Framework Programmes contribute: in 2015, the European Commission estimated that each Euro spent on EU R&I generates approximately eleven Euro of direct and indirect economic effects through innovations, new technologies and products.

The European University Association has recently published a paper that clearly demonstrates that EU spending on the Framework Programmes (FP) in the last decade has not kept up with demand from increasingly knowledge-dependent economies.

Since FP6, funding growth has been almost twice as low as the growth in the number of proposals, and the FP funding commitment has never truly matched Europe’s untapped scientific capacity.

In this respect, the European Commission estimated that an additional EUR 62.4 billion would have been necessary to fund all high-quality proposals for 2014-2016. The study states that: “there is increased recognition among stakeholders that due to underfunding, the overall efficiency of the FP and the entire EU research funding landscape has significantly gone down.”

At present, the overall cost of applications, successful or not, is estimated to make up as much as 30% to 50% of overall funding that countries receive from Horizon 2020. In other words, the full cost of participation in FP projects remains too high and often unaffordable for beneficiaries especially from smaller institutions. In addition, most of the applications are submitted by publicly-funded organisations, meaning that national budgets bear the costs of unfunded applications.

This clearly shows: Horizon 2020 has become a victim of its own success. In this context, it is also worth noting that over 80 % of the projects funded would not have gone ahead at all without EU-level funding, highlighting the unquestionable value of Horizon 2020 and its objectives and funding criteria.  EU FP funding and actions are thus a complement to, and not a substitute for, national R&I efforts.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am therefore convinced: Despite Brexit and its €94 billion budget hole, we need to increase the budget significantly. Allocating more funding to the FP9 is thus a critical investment in Europe’s future. This is an area where the EU can provide real value-added. Of course this will also mean that we need to cut in other areas of the EU budget. Every Member State will need to be ready to compromise in one area or another as we cannot expect the same level of funding in all areas in the next Multi Financial Framework. But my appeal would be: Let us prioritise our spending and increase our funding for research and development. Let us not waste this opportunity.

Of course I am well aware of the criticism that might hit me. Just providing more money will not do the trick alone. I am well aware of that. We - for instance - will also need to make the current system more flexible. Certainly, a centrally managed programme of this magnitude will always entail a certain level of administration and bureaucracy.

However, simplification and evaluation should always be top of our agenda. The current EU R&I funding landscape remains complex, with many different instruments. The possible establishment of a European Innovation Council (EIC) could help in bringing the many existing innovation support schemes under the one umbrella. And further simplification could also come about from the better alignment of national programmes with the EU FP, and by introducing a two-stage evaluation mechanism for applications to diminish the administrative burden on researchers and innovators.

Another topic that deserves our attention is trying to do away with existing geographical imbalances in the EU. The R&I gap between the “old” and the “new” Member States and the low participation rates of the “new” Member States are problems that need to be addressed. For instance, recent statistics on ERC grants (European Research Council) show that in 2018 only two went to Eastern and Central European countries. This is unacceptable and a worrying trend.

And here I believe that the Commission should explore ways to spread R&I excellence to more countries and regions. Given the strong correlation between national investments in R&I and national success at international level, ‘widening’ activities should be conducted without weakening the quality of the R&I funded.

Low participation rates also need to be addressed at a national level, and in relation to the research instrument in question. Therefore, we should aim at strengthening both the EU13’s National Contact Points and strategic management within research organisations, as details on funding opportunities do not always reach the right audiences. A strong local support system will also assist potential applicants in their search for EU-partners and during the application stages for project funding.

Before I come to a close, let me also touch upon the topic of research and innovation and the involvement of industry in all of this. Numerous studies have concluded that the EU does not capitalise enough on its own know-how and the knowledge it produces through research.

This so-called “valley of death” continues to be one of Europe’s major weaknesses and much more attention needs to be paid to facilitating breakthroughs, market-creating innovation, and into the ‘scaling-up’ of European start-ups and SMEs.

In order to support the development of research and innovation, we need more cross-sectorial and multi-disciplinary approaches, including the extensive involvement of industry. Therefore, I very much welcome the intentions behind the European Innovation Council (EIC), which would focus especially on helping our best European start-ups and SMEs. The establishment of the EIC should also make the EU innovation funding landscape more coherent.

Do not get me wrong. I believe that we need to balance support for both research and innovation. While innovation activities often remain closer to practical applications and commercial returns, the importance of fundamental research must not be underestimated nor undermined. This is key.

Fundamental research delivers results even if its impact is not always immediately tangible. Scientific breakthroughs are often the outcome of multiple, overlapping and long-term research projects, and indeed the many global challenges we are facing call for long-term commitment and the exploration of multiple research avenues. Therefore, funding schemes should recognise the diverse or divergent needs of different researchers, research teams and projects.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I started with President Macron. Let me also close with him. When he delivered his speech at the European Parliament last week, he urged European policy-makers not to stand still. Rightly so, he underlined Europe’s dire need for reform, now and not in two years’ time. Macron reminded us that we need more investments in the future, not in the past. That we cannot afford to be a generation of sleep-walkers but need to become active.

While one might not agree with all of his ideas, I think he is spot-on about Europe’s future. In times like these, we need more courage and boldness. And such visionary and future-proof ideas for the EU, and especially for higher education and science on the European continent, will help to make Europe a continent of excellence and competiveness. If we are to compete, we must seek to increase Europe's competitiveness through development and implementation of new knowledge, and translate new knowledge into innovative solutions. And we must work together. I believe that as individual European nations, we will fall short in our response.

In my speech, I have outlined some humble ideas how we could achieve this and I hope that we can work together to deliver results for our European continent.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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