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Achieving Excellence at Universities: What does it mean in times of multiple crises?

21 December 2023

Ludovic Thilly, Beatrix Busse and Emmanuelle Gardan, Coimbra Group Executive Board Chair, Vice-Chair and Brussels Office Director respectively

As our world is facing multiple simultaneous and interconnected crises and transitions which affect the social fabric of our societies and democracies, universities cannot pretend as if nothing has happened and continue to function as before. Increased threats to academic freedom and to frontier research. Accelerated geopolitical developments and crises. Structural lack of resources in the university sector – human resources, funding, political support. Unfolding reform of research assessment. Global move towards open science and open bibliometric data.

This is just a fraction of the challenges that are present in our communities and that need to be considered by university leadership. Times call upon us to question our institutions and adapt. This will not happen if we do not move beyond the never-ending debate on excellence and rather emphasize the need for a different approach to it – for instance by better recognising the interdependence between research excellence and education excellence taking also into account our societal mission. Let’s therefore seize this period as a crucial opportunity for moving forward as institutions, as a network and as a sector.

The 2023 Coimbra Group High-Level Seminar on Research Policy, which gathered the Rectors and Vice-Rectors for Research and Internationalisation of CG Universities on 13-14 November in Brussels, was developed by the Executive Board with this responsibility in mind. The event, themed “Achieving Excellence at Universities: What does it mean in times of multiple crises?”, offered rich and topical debates.

If there are no easy answers to this question, there are, however, many different paths, directions, ways to move on and explore. The seminar was aimed exactly at that: Examining the systemic components of excellence, getting the conversation going across the spectrum of Universities’ missions, looking at human resources-related policies, as well as questioning together common standards and prevailing thinking.

What incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking two days these have been! Welcoming the participation of several keynote and guest speakers, such as ERC President Maria Leptin (link to her keynote), the Commission’s DG RTD Deputy Director-General Signe Ratso, EU Commissioner Iliana Ivanova through a message read by her cabinet, or MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho, to name only a few – who have challenged us and nurtured our debate.

In our discussions, we conceptualized excellence as being valued by peers, innovative, open, unexpected, risky; different from elitism, strongly connected to impact, including social and societal impact, strongly connected to frontier research and the role of it; “no big is better”. We also conceptualized excellence as quality in relation to a broadly accepted reference framework, but is it possible to agree on criteria against which quality is measured?

Coimbra Group advocates for an integrated approach to all University missions. Hence, we are strongly convinced it is valid to talk also about excellence in education. Our institutions have always performed and committed to offer the highest quality education and it is their duty to do so.

We also addressed the conditions under which academic/scientific excellence can flourish, among others:

  • Sufficient funding
  • Fair and inclusive career development
  • Support to the best research infrastructures (including the small- and medium-size ones)
  • Academic freedom, democracy and peace

We agreed on the need for even more trust in science and the necessity for our universities to communicate better what we do. This also relates to the importance of citizen science and capacity-building in science diplomacy. Finally, the seminar provided a timely opportunity to exchange on strategic issues connected to open research infrastructure and open-data rankings.  Coimbra Group is ready to join and bring its own voice to the emerging open European conversation on open research information.

In conclusion, there is still a lot to digest, reflect on and certainly debate. But there is a clear willingness among our members to engage on these complex topics via the Coimbra Group. One should not be surprised, as academia has never been afraid of complexity and Coimbra Group remains more than ever committed to its motto “a tradition of innovation”!

We are looking forward to further collective achievements in 2024. On behalf of the whole Executive Board and Office, we wish you all a most relaxing and enjoyable holiday season and all the best for the New Year.