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Speech by President Charles Michel at the European University Association annual conference

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Raad, gepubliceerd op donderdag 22 april 2021.

Thank you for your invitation. Universities are vibrant institutions — alive with ideas, debate, research, and growth. You play a vital role in the lives of people and societies. During a global pandemic, you are all these things…and much more. You strengthen the fabric of our societies — through education and continued engagement with our communities.

COVID-19 has upended our societies, but it has also upended higher education, in Europe, and across the world. As we envisage a world after the pandemic, we may be asking a number of questions about the future of our universities: What should our universities look like after COVID?

How should they function?

And perhaps most importantly, how can universities shape our post-pandemic world?

The Challenges

Today we face countless challenges — defeating the virus and rebooting our economies, among many others. We are at a pivotal moment in our history.

This is also true for you, our great European universities.

You are at a turning point, facing challenges that we could not have imagined just one year ago. That is why, like every sector of our societies — from politics to business to education — you will have to adapt, be flexible, and capitalise on the opportunities of this tumultuous time.

Role of education, research and innovation

The two great opportunities of our time are the green and digital transitions. And I believe our universities can, and must, play a vigorous role in shaping this common future. These twin transformations will define the coming century. And you, our universities, must be a powerful engine in driving forward our efforts.

You educate the experts of tomorrow — in state-of-the-art technologies, innovation, and many other critical fields. Political leaders, business leaders, and you in higher education — we must work together to boost the virtuous link between education and skills, research and innovation, and jobs, business and economic growth.

This holistic approach will not only power our climate and digital ambitions, it will generate economic prosperity and shore up our resilience. Universities are right at the centre of the so-called “knowledge square” — between education, research, innovation, and inspiration for our societies.

Universities of the future

It is interesting and exciting to imagine our universities of the future. In 10 years. In 50 years. What will they look like? How will they shape our societies?

I like the description in your publication: “Universities without walls”.

This implies adaptability and openness. Openness to embracing the new “digital campus”. Openness to being a catalyst for innovation. Openness to joining forces with other sectors of society. And openness to greater flexibility and cooperation among universities across Europe.

Our European universities are striving to come out of this period stronger, revitalised, and prepared for the coming decades. This means developing pan-European talent pools in science and technologies — such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and high performance computing — to achieve our green and digital goals. European and international cooperation — between universities and multi-disciplinary teams — will also foster the sharing of knowledge and talents.

Our democracies are coming under increased pressure. Our universities must therefore continue to be home to academic freedom and democratic values, free speech, gender equality, and fundamental rights. These principles must be cherished and nurtured, today more than ever, as they are threatened across the globe.

Our universities must remain temples of knowledge, talent, and evidence-based information. As foreign interference and disinformation seek to infiltrate our societies, intellectual rigour will only grow in importance.

EU Support

Last year, European leaders agreed a historic 1.8 trillion euro recovery package.

As part of this, Horizon Europe will receive almost 100 billion euro, a 30% increase in comparison with the current research and innovation programme. This makes it the most ambitious research and innovation programme in the Union’s history.

Every euro of Union funds dedicated to European partnerships will be matched with at least one additional euro from private or public partners. It will mobilise resources at all levels to tackle urgent global challenges, like fighting cancer, greening our cities, transforming our mobility, and digitising our societies.

Europe has always been good in making world-class science with money. Now it's time to create more added value from this world-class science. This means translating research into market opportunities and strengthening entrepreneurship.

A last topic close to my heart — Erasmus+. As a university student, I participated in the Erasmus programme and I never forgot this experience. With a budget of over 26 billion euro — 12 billion more than the previous budget — the new programme will be stronger, greener, more digital, and more inclusive. It will also support new flagship initiatives, such as European Universities.

You have stepped up to the challenge during the pandemic — from developing vaccines to engaging with our communities. And I am confident that our European universities of tomorrow will continue to prosper and add value to the lives of our citizens and to our societies.

Let’s all work together to build greener, more digital, more democratic, and more equitable societies. I wish you a fruitful conference. Thank you.

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