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Press release - Global top university networks discuss the future of the research university

The leaders of some of the world’s most prestigious universities are gathering at an unprecedented event to discuss the future of the research-intensive universities (RIUs) in Europe and the world. For the first time also the most prominent RIU networks from Europe (LERU), the US (AAU), Australia (Go8) and China (C9) will meet. They do so at the invitation of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), which is celebrating its ten-year anniversary with a unique conference at the Universitat de Barcelona on 9-10 May 2012.

Who then is LERU to claim that RIUs are the “guide and engine for Europe 2050”, the conference theme? At the beginning of this millennium a few Rectors – LERU’s “founding fathers” – discovered their kindred spirits, united in the idea that RIUs are unique in what and how they contribute to the economy and to society, and that these varied contributions are all in some way connected to the very rich tapestry of research activity that occurs at their institutions. They realised there was a need for RIUs in Europe to speak with one voice about the importance of fundamental research, the strengths of broad-based, research-led universities and the need for long term public investment in them. It was much needed in a Europe where the Lisbon Agenda, with its focus on economic benefit and innovation, was shaping what governments wanted from their universities.

It may seem counter-intuitive but what the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, will argue in his keynote speech at the conference is that “universities’ contribution to the economy is so effective precisely because it is not our primary objective”. That is why strong, smart public investment in universities is even more important when the economic outlook is bad.

He and other university heads representing RIU networks from around the world will discuss how their institutions are equipping themselves for the future. While it may be provocative to say in these days of economic and other crises, the magic ingredient may very well be the unfettered pursuit of frontier research, in all its breadth and depth, grounded in universities’ unique capacity to attract and nurture talented people working on all kinds of ideas to find each other, developing new research avenues, leading to breakthroughs. Mix all this with strong support services in the university and a rich environment of businesses and institutes clustering around RIUs and you get a powerful knowledge-pushing engine. The messages to governments are clear:

1) understand the university enterprise as a complex, interacting whole and as a source of multiple, separate benefits to society;

2) realise that RIUs are one of a few real trump cards in their hands in the fierce global competition for leading edge research and creative human talent;

3) value universities’ freedom and autonomy to set their own course, so that they’re able to participate in this competition without having one or both hands tied behind their backs.

These are precisely the messages that LERU has been developing for the past ten years. LERU does not claim that its 21 members are the only or even the 21 “best” RIUs in Europe. It should be seen rather as a group of like-minded universities who are willing to put a lot of time and energy into crystalising these ideas, in writing them down in papers and reports, and in bringing LERU’s messages to policy makers, governments, funders, academe and beyond.

LERU’s views have been aimed in the first place at the EU rather than the national level, but they have certainly influenced debates at the national level as well. In its 30+ publications LERU has voiced opinions, advice and recommendations on a broad array of topics. Some stem from the universities’ desire to speak out on the issues above and others such as technology transfer, open access, researchers’ training and careers, women in research, university rankings and research assessment. Others respond specifically to EU research policy developments and initiatives such as the European Research Council, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the Framework Programmes, the European Research Area, the “Modernisation Agenda”, etc.

In addition to its work as a policy development and advocacy group, LERU fosters mutual learning and collaboration among the members of the network, bringing all kinds of experts together in a variety of contexts. There is a LERU doctoral summer school and an annual conference for undergraduate students. The LERU Rectors have adopted a model code of practice for research employment and model agreements for joint doctorates.

Ten years ago LERU was founded with a vision “to rock the boat”. In its first decade, LERU has spoken out on many contentious issues, led by the vast experience of its strong membership. It has firmly established itself as a network of top-level universities standing up for the importance of fundamental research. LERU has taken on a leadership role on behalf of RIUs to achieve a better understanding of the role of universities in safeguarding society’s trust and investment in science. We have built up an organisation that is fit to deliver on our goals, have succeeded in disseminating our messages and influencing others with our views. For the next decade, we intend to continue to rock the boat, taking on new challenges, leading by example and delivering the combined wisdom and experience of Europe’s leading RIUs with a sound vision of the future for research universities in an ever more globally competitive higher education market, with opportunities for mutual learning and enrichment, and with concrete and practical advice to universities, its staff and students, and to those who interact with them and want to thoroughly understand them - governments, businesses and others. LERU intends to keep pushing the frontiers… simply because, to quote again Sir Leszek, “serving society is at the core of what we do”.


The League of European Research Universities (LERU)