Over the past 40 years, there has been a tremendous focus on stimulating education, research and innovation in Europe. Lead by the European Commission, funding of these strategic areas have been through numerous EU Research Framework Programmes (FP1 – FP7), and through the current Horizon 2020 programme, the EU’s largest and most considerably funded research initiative to date. However, most of these funds seemingly go to a select few countries, organisations and people. Considering the €56 billion spent in FP funding between 2007 and 2013, and the current €80 billion budget for the six years of Horizon 2020, we must consider to what extent these programs actually contribute to education, research and innovation throughout all of Europe.
The latest FP7 monitoring report by the European Commission shows that €3 billion of the commission’s funding went to just 10 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Europe, five of which are located in the United Kingdom. In addition, there has not been significant change across funding periods in the makeup of the top 50 HEIs that have received funding. A similar trend exists amongst other FP7 beneficiaries, whereas the top 10 research organisations received €3.5 billion in funding. This would indicate that more than a tenth of the total FP7 budget went to only 20 organisations, representing a disappointing 0.00027 percent of all applicants.
It is important to note that we are not debating whether excellence should be rewarded, nor are we lobbying for an even distribution of funds throughout Europe. However, it is nonetheless shocking to see how large a budget share is disbursed to these top organisations, even though they represent a dishearteningly minuscule fraction of the entire applicant pool. It was still worthwhile for a “non-elite” organization to write proposals when there was a twenty-two percent success rate in FP7, but with the success rate having dropped to twelve percent in Horizon 2020, many organizations are now thinking twice.
With the Erasmus+ programme (Europe’s grant programme for furthering education, training, youth and sport through transnational partnerships) showing similar and even lower success rates–with some such as the Knowledge Alliances programme registering success rates of less than 5 percent—the question of whether the current funding distributions in Europe are actually stimulating education, research and innovation throughout, or whether they do so simply within a few specific countries and amongst a few selected top-tier organisations, remains unanswered.
So, a high proportion of European funding is going to elite universities and specific nations. Why is this a problem?
Generally speaking, in comparison to most European universities, elite universities have well developed and diverse funding channels. Let us take Oxford University as an example, the largest HEI beneficiary of European funding with 437M€ and nearly 1% of the entire FP7 funding allocation. According to Oxford University website “£522.9m (€672.9M), which accounts for 43% of total income comes from external research funding, from bodies such as research councils, charities, trusts, foundations, and industry”. A further “15% comes from government grants through the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the National College for Teaching and Leadership.” and “Other income includes annual transfers from Oxford University Press, income from the commercialisation of research, and philanthropic support (19% or €297.3M) with only 21% (€328.6M) coming from academic fees, from both undergraduates and postgraduates. Compared with your average European university, these are exorbitant numbers.
Furthermore, much like finances drive success, which drives finances in European football, the same cycle ensures that elite and financial universities stay ahead of others. This is because universities already receiving large levels of funding have well developed systems and a great level of experienced personnel available to prepare bids, thereby creating substantial economies of scale for European funding.
To improve the low amount of cooperation between universities and business in Europe a much more equal distribution of finances should be made to encourage excellence in different forms, not such research quality which will inevitable end up in the hands of a few. Whether it is excellent of smaller or more focussed HEIs or HEIs focussed on student employability, lifelong learning, entrepreneurship or other forms of collaborative activity, a more diverse approach will allow a greater amount of committed HEIs to develop their own excellence.
Authored by Arno Meerman (CEO of University Industry Innovation Network) and Todd Davey (Director International Projects at Science-to-Business Marketing Research Centre)