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City and University in the Knowledge Age, European Journal of Engineering Education vol 26, N°, 2001

(Keynote address, Coimbra group, 575th anniversary of Leuven University)


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is both an honor and a challenge to address such an assembly, an assembly that represents the oldest and most prestigious European universities. I am also aware of how unreasonable it is to try to deal with the subject that was suggested to me, particularly when one is not a specialist of the theme. I think Mrs Voyé called me as a researcher interested in the role of cities in a context of globalization. But I would like to express myself also as the head of an academic institution, modest in size, that wonders, as you all do, about its future. As a side remark, I would like to observe to my great amusement that I will not be able to boast, as I often do, about the seniority of my institution. Indeed, the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées celebrated two year ago its 250th anniversary. The Ecole is probably the oldest modern engineering school in the world. But two centuries and a half represent little compared to the 575 years that we are celebrating today. For this reason, I will resolutely deal with the future, or at least with some images of the future that we can try to sketch-out today.

Universities and Regional Development


The university, the city, the region, the knowledge-based economy : very naturally these terms refer to the role of the universities in regional development. I will not give you a detailed account of the usual story, the romance between the university and the regions that you know by heart as I do. This story has its founding myths: Stanford and Silicon Valley, Boston and route 128. It has its magic formula: "learning region", "knowledge based city", etc. All over Europe the idea has spread, from the 1980's on especially, that the development of higher education and above all the development of the research related to this education, could have a direct impact on local development by raising the level of qualification of the labor force, by facilitating transfers between science and industry at a regional level, by creating new activities in order to replace aging industries. There were old suspicions between the academic milieu, the business world and the local political community. These suspicions generally were the product of mutual ignorance and had often been reinforced by the unrest of the late 1960's. Now they have nearly disappeared and have often been replaced by attempts at mutual seduction. In France for instance, local representatives began to be interested in universities and research centers when they realized that the process of development which had prevailed during the booming 1950's and 1960's was giving out. Projects for technopoles sprang up all over the country. Regional funding for the academic world increased significantly, sometimes without serious control and scientific expertise. New relations were also established between universities and corporations. In France, these relations were fully legitimized during the 1980’s.

In a way, the recognition of the role of knowledge — considered not only in a general abstract sense, but as a specific territorially embedded asset — this recognition should come as no surprise. For indeed urban or regional knowledge based economies are a long standing reality. The symbiotic growth of urban and regional economies and scientific university-based clusters in the US during the 70s is a example among others illustrating a general law of modern capitalism : market based economies need non market engines. There is no trade off between market regulations and externalities. Both are growing simultaneously. Of course, this becomes especially true for advanced sectors and for the "intellectual" functions characterized by a high level of uncertainty, and hence the need for confidence and specificity in relations between the actors. But this is also true, as I shall argue further, for a very large range of more traditional sectors and functions in the new context of globalised competition.

What are the results of the strengthening of links between universities and local political and business milieus in Europe — in a context, it must be emphasized, of a very strong quantitative growth of higher education demand and supply ? I will not try to answer this question, as we can refer to specialized surveys like the EU Research Project UNIREG (Universities in Regional Development). I will only make some general comments.

The development of universities has undoubtedly had in many cases a positive outcome at a regional level. In some European regions such as the Ruhr district, an especially active university development has had remarkable consequences on the issue of economic revival, similar to what happened around Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh (See Kunzmann, 1995). There are many other success stories. In many towns, either declining or thriving, the university, with its associated hospitals, now ranks among the major local employers. This positive assessment is nevertheless difficult to generalize unreservedly. As regards the social links established between the academic and the local spheres, various surveys conducted in France have concluded that these links often remain tenuous. For instance Alain Bourdin, Monique Hirshorn and André Sauvage have shown that academics had generally little interest in having close ties with local circles, and that, on the contrary, local actors encountered difficulties when they tried to position themselves in relation to an academic world perceived as closed, fragmented and difficult to comprehend for outsiders. As regards the impact on the economy, utopian enthusiasm has sometimes been replaced by skepticism. It is now clear that the effects induced on the local economical base, on SMEs in particular, were not automatic. The rate of creation of university-based start-ups has remained almost everywhere far lower than in the US. In France, according to an analysis of the industrial contracts signed with universities, Michel Grossetti distinguishes between various situations :

in the Paris region, which is far and away the main pole of public and private research in France, relations between the academic and the industrial sectors have remained limited, in absolute as well as in relative terms. The academic sphere is absorbed into its own complexity and diversity. Compared to other regions, local public authorities are less interested in the development of universities: why finance what is already overabundant ?

in other regional poles characterized by a high level of scientific activity, whose orientations differ from the local industrial sector, universities have few relations with the local business community. In France, Strasbourg and Alsace represent a typical example of this situation.

in some areas such as Lyon, Grenoble and Toulouse, strong historical links (I emphasize this long standing connection) exist between industry and public research and still produce positive effects on economic development.

finally, in medium-sized cities such as Orléans, the potential remain modest but all forms of interactions between the economic and the academic world are promoted and highlighted.

To complete this picture, we can add a few remarks that also tend to call into question the automatic character of the links between academic and local development. First, this link is often based on a small fringe of academic-entrepreneurs who are deeply involved in local affairs and bear the mark of a certain regional patriotism. Now, apart from the largest poles, the number of non-resident professors, more or less indifferent to local affairs, is extremely high. This tendency has, of course, been reinforced by the development of high-speed trains ! Second, one has often overestimated, especially in France, the effectiveness of direct dialogue between university laboratories and SMEs, apart of course from those that are direct spin-offs of the academic sphere. SMEs need expert advice on current technological and managerial "best-practices", rather than on the latest advanced scientific knowledge. It is naive to believe that its is enough to bring together some local laboratory and some SME to foster innovation. The cultural gap is too wide. And the bureaucratic institutions which limit themselves to organizing meetings often are incapable of making headway. Finally, one wonders if multiplying universities in small-sized cities is the best solution. For local politicians involved in the battle for the competitiveness of their territory, the presence of a university has become an element of attraction — "Standortfaktor", as the Germans say — just like the stadium, the conference center, the theater and the modern art museum. In the Land of Rheinland Westphalen, today there are more than fifteen "Hochschulen". Yet, if this proliferation facilitates access to higher education for popular and middle class young people from the local area—which is, in itself, an important achievement — it would be vain to expect a real outcome in terms of interaction between research and industry, for these universities are generally not large enough to sustain efficient R and D centers.

These observations do not, of course, contradict the idea that academic growth is important, at least potentially, for local development. I only wanted to emphasize that the effective implementation of this positive feedback effect is not mechanical. To the contrary, it requires finely tuned strategies.

Of course, extending this discussion would require more systematic field observations. Let me now broaden the subject by stepping back from this theme of the local role of universities in order to adress issues regarding the future of the academic sphere in this new context which we usually call "globalization".

University and City in Globalization

I shall start from a very broad geographical remark. One of the major paradoxes of our world is that the development of both physical and informational communication and the dramatic decrease of distance related costs do not at all generate a stochastic dispersal of activities, but on the contrary the most powerful spatial polarization move ever seen. This polarization basically results , as I said before, of the role of externalities in the modern economy. The globalized economy remains deeply rooted in historically shaped territories, in opposition to the common-place image of a foot loose economy of flows. Regions provide the market economy with immaterial resources essential to its development. This is strongly reinforced, in my opinion, by a range of complex effects primarly linked to the change in competition patterns on global markets. Firms are driven to adopt quality- and innovation-based strategies, and still are obliged to reduce costs. Traditional, rigidly fragmented, taylorist production organization, highly efficient in a stable price based competition environment, is becoming counterproductive in this new context. The competitivness of a firm or industry lies no longer in the mere intensification of work and traditional productivity effects. It results mainly from the density and the relevance of cooperation established between the different actors in a value chain. And this cooperation can not be set up — this is the point I wish to emphasize — either by the decision making of a more or less centralized technostructure or through sheer market forces. The ability to promote interfirm cooperation and confidence, to share values and anticipations, the convergence of projects, the relevance of institutionnal frames and finally the quality of local public and private governance are the key factors of success, instead of traditional geographic location factors, more or less neutralized by the decrease of communication costs. In other words, the key resources for development are socially and politically built-up, and not a given of nature, as in the past. Potentially,all regions and cities, whatever their size, stand to benefit from this.

However, this polarization process mainly occurs around very large urban cores. This trend of metropolization can be observed worldwide. (Concerning this subject, I would naturally mention the writings of our colleague J. Thisse in Louvain La Neuve, and of Jean Rémy and Liliane Voyé, in a more sociological perspective).

These poles are increasingly disconnected from their regional “hinterlands”, or even from their national context, and tend to function together as an integrated transnational network. Their dynamism results from a double rationale. On the one hand, they are the places where market economy expands with the highest strength and efficiency : the growth of metropolitan areas mainly results from immediate and expected advantages, provided to firms and people by large and diversified labour markets. On the other hand, they are the places where this market oriented dynamism best catches all kinds of externalities and effects linked with untraded interdependancies (e.g., "milieu" effects tied to technological or cultural communities). In other words, these areas where growth and power concentrate associate fluidity of market relationships together with an integration in long lasting social networks, which provide mutual confidence and substantially speed up the collective learning processes. Large metropolitan areas are also the relevant environment for the flexibility needs of firms and individual. The macroeconomic instability today affects a wide range of sectors, not just cutting-edge services and high technology. This, combined with the deregulation of labor markets, drives firms to seek greater and greater flexibility. The big city appears, in this perspective, not only as a functional set of input-output relations between firms in specific economic sectors, minimizing transaction costs, but as a single gigantic "flexibility pool".

On a macro-geographic level, these poles are the "hubs" of a world-wide economy of flows. They are the main islands of an "archipelago economy", or “polynesian economy”, which can be characterized by a few major features:

  • traditional segmentation of activities in industries is brought into question, in favor of multi-industry clusters ;
  • activities are structured and hierarchized according to geographical and technological levels, or layers (world-wide, regional, local networks; high-tech, low-tech industries), which partly blur usual industry divisions ;
  • from a geographical viewpoint, horizontal relationship between network nodes are becoming more important than proximity-related vertical links (e.g. between cities and surrounding areas) ;
  • upper level networks gather around a few poles, in very limited numbers (which is the case for advanced finance services or advanced technology) ;
  • increasing disparities appear between the various layers of networks and between territories, at different scales. For instance, in Europe, inequalities between regions were significantly reduced during the 30 years after WW II, but are now increasing. The same remark can be made concerning intra-regional and intra-urban inequalities.

But let me come back to universities! The main idea I propose you is the following : these trends, which characterize the geo-economic development of cities and territories as a whole, also apply to the academic world. Universities will not be dissolved by information technology and communication economy any more than cities. But like the urban system, to which it is closely linked, the global network of universities will certainly be affected by major changes.

To make this idea clear, let us consider this issue in a more precise way. Behind the buzzword : "knowledge based economy", two main processes must be distinguished : new forms of scientific production, together with new links between science and the economy ; an unprecedented mobility of people and information. This double change directly affects academic institutions. It already submits them, and will increasingly submit them, to strong tensions, and probably requires a renewal of classical paradigms.

During the last thirty years universities, originally conceived and organized as elite institutions, have undergone the first major change : the huge shock of mass recruiting, of student numbers skyrocketing. All their reform energy has been focused on absorbing this shock and particularly on the tries, sometimes successful and sometimes not, to preserve traditional "islands of excellency" in this difficult to control growth wave. But the very principles of academic functioning, the definition of institutional roles, the structures of organization finally have changed very little. Today, one may fear that the universities, still mainly involved in these past – and still present – problems, will be late in understanding the stakes of the near future, and that the new innovative forms that changes in their environment require, will develop mainly in their periphery, or even outside of them.

Dealing with new forms of production and evaluation of scientific knowledge – the first key-factor of change – one can refer to Gibbons and his co-authors’ book : “The New Production of Knowledge". Frontier blurring between fundamental and applied research or, in other words, development of basic science through a direct contact with technological applications in a market environment ; growing demand for interdisciplinary approaches, due to the complexity of industrial problems; diversification of validation modes and of judgement criteria, which gradually escape from the academic institutions’ monopoly. If Gibbons's nowadays famous "mode two" is a relevant approach to new knowledge production regimes, it directly brings into question a world where university concentrates the right to raise proper scientific questions and means to answer them. Of course, one may contest, as Dominique Pestre did in a recent "La Recherche" journal issue, the very newness of this "mode two", as one can find many historical examples from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, the balance between the traditional mode and mode two is undoubtedly moving towards the latter. Three tendencies seem hardly questionable :

advanced knowledge becomes a direct and critical factor of industrial and commercial competitiveness (far beyond some specific science-based sectors);

the places, organisations and networks where knowledge is produced , together with fora where strategic information is exchanged, massively diversify, and sometimes completely spray themselves outside of the academic sphere;

scientific knowledge production is henceforward submitted to a growing demand of social accountability: the academic institution must report to public opinion, particularly when techno-science is directly responsible for evolutions experts are afterwards unable to analyze all the consequences of (one may think of current debates on nuclear power, genetics, etc.). The university, as any other social institutions, is therefore taken into the big reflexivity move, typical of our times.

As a main consequence of this, of course, the division between private and public issues in science is made more porous, and these denominations themselves become unclear. In a provocatively entitled paper, Michel Callon asks: "Is science a public good?", referring to the definition economists give to this notion. The context-dependent character of technological-scientific knowledge makes one think that the free and universal availability of science often is a convenient fiction rather than a reality. In some extreme cases, as in finance, knowledge has but a furtive value. As Nicolas Bouleau says: they are valid only in a given place and for a very short while. More generally, one cannot ignore the fast growing place private interests have take in scientific institutions and developments, particularly in biology.

On the other hand, this fundamental trend toward privatization and the expansion of market-based regulations is strongly supported by mobility and geographic fluidity, through the combination of at least three factors: the mobility of academics ; that of students; and new communication technologies.

The mobility of academics, still marginal but increasing, announces the emergence of a single European market which might gradually resemble American’s.

As for the international mobility of students within Europe, it remains low, and universities still view their markets as local, captive ones. Besides, the prevailing rule of free – or nearly free – education makes Europe rather unreceptive to the important worldwide demand for higher education – which has all the potential features of a future large private industry, probably one of the most important in the coming century. In particular, middle and upper classes in emerging countries are ready to invest a considerable part of their savings in the education of their children abroad. The USA and they alone already greatly benefit from the existence of this market.

Finally, it is clear that Internet technologies could sustain the process of privatization of education and differenciation among universities, in at least two ways. First, rapidly developing multimedia educational products and services may become a major activity for universities that seize the opportunity. In a recent study of the multimedia industry in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Alan Scott found that educational applications generated nearly as much revenue as games and entertainment. Second, the Internet obviously allows the extension and intensification of market mechanisms in the mutual selection of students, universities and research centers. In October of last year, the San Jose Mercury News published an article about a website which allowed students to make on-line offers indicating their prior academic results and how much in university fees they were ready to pay. For a 2000 dollar subscription, universities can access the site and select students. The Internet is also a powerful instrument for doctoral and post-doctoral students, allowing them to search for a lab or a grant on a much larger geographic scale than before.

These changes toward more internationalized and extended markets for education are still limited in scope, and unknown to most students and teachers. But the trend is general; in Europe it does not result in increased mobility between European countries, but in an increase in departures to the USA. For example, the number of students at the Paris Ecole polytechnique leaving for the USA to study has doubled in two years. Elite universities must therefore undergo a sort of cultural revolution: traditionally used to choosing among students and professors eager to enter them (in the context of relatively small home markets), these institutions must now strive to retain their best elements and attract the best potential candidates.

What is the overall result yielded by these evolutions? At this point, the analogy with the global geo-economic dynamic described above is striking. First, it is clear that successful universities will be those which will best adapt to the new patterns of the knowledge-based economy : ability to combine strong specialization in specific fields with real multidisciplinarity; mobility and reactivity in relations with business.

Second, a double dynamic of hierarchisation and differenciation among universities is to be expected. As in all globalized processes, only a few poles will be comforted at the national or continental scale, according to the logic of "winner-take-all" markets (at work, e.g., for football clubs or movie stars). It is, for example, very striking, that in China, programs of international cooperation are centered on a very small number of universities – and this process is of course self-reinforcing.

The situation prevailing in Europe is obviously very different, because of the long history and density of our university system. But the underlying dynamics are the same, carrying with them new risks but at the same time new opportunities. In closing this lecture, I would like to put forth a few remarks on the future of our academic system, even though I am aware that the relevance of general statements on "the European university" is seriously limited by the extreme diversity of our national institutions.

Charles Kleiber, the Swiss secretary of state for Science and Research, who has just initiated a radical reform of the Helvetic academic system, recently summarized in a few key points the shift of paradigm faced by European universities :

  • universities which currently occupy a peripheral place in society must become a major lever of change in the emerging knowledge-based society;
  • universities must expand from a national or sub-national scale to a European and global one;
  • universities must shift from a bureaucratic administration to a self-regulated system relying simultaneously on increased result-based competition and increased cooperation;
  • self-centered universities must become "learning organizations" integrated in international networks.

Some might object to this new paradigm, seeing it as the work of a neo-liberal devil aiming to impose on our venerable European universities efficiency rules incompatible with their culture and traditional functions. This perception, however, is oversimplified. It would be very dangerous to oppose the new business-oriented university and the old humanist university. Things are more ambiguous and complex. On the one hand, it is obvious that major changes are required to adapt to the new international context. On the other hand, the reform necessity should not lead to ignorance of the serious risks that a full commitment of universities to the intellectual and moral standards of market competition would entail.

A significant obstacle to reform lies in the fact that our academic institutions are generally conservative in terms of structure and organization. One reason for this situation is the tradition of self-management of universities by academics and the frequent lack of professional management. With only slight exaggeration, academics, as we all know, can be divided up in three groups (See Kunzmann, 1995) :

a minority of researcher-entrepreneurs, involved or not in relations with business, internationaly minded, who often carry on their work in research centers peripheral to the university system (An-Institute in Germany, for example), and who for lack of time or interest do not become involved in internal reforms of academic institutions ;

another minority group, in charge of internal affairs, whom the first group has left to take care of day-to-day management and unending bureaucratic fights ;

a large group of individualists, some hard working and some not, acting like "free riders" of an institution that hardly makes any distinction between the two and is in fact essentially regulated by individual ethics.

Another reason for conservatism lies in the scattering of structures (even when they are formally integrated into larger organizations), in the lack of real incentives for cooperation, and in the limited cooperative skills of individuals whose professional life is ruled by competition and specialization.

Discussing the solutions experimented in various European countries to overcome these resistances is far beyond the scope of this lecture.

Before I conclude, let me stress two final points.

The first is the pressing necessity to strongly and rapidly open our institutions onto a European dimension. Great progress has been made during the past few years. But the fragmentation of our languages, the diversity and the heterogeneity of our curricula, the low mobility of both studients and professors have to be overcome. Of course, Europe, with its extraordinary internal diversity, gives us potentially a great chance to deal with the multiculturalism of global economy and society. But when we say : "the richness of Europe lies in its diversity and in the internal dialogue of its identities", we know that this assertion is partially a cliché, part of the European "langue de bois". Because we know that there is often little real dialogue, outside of the very specialized scientific communities, especially in the natural sciences. How many French professors, for instance, know the German university, and vice versa ?

The second priority is probably to strengthen the connections of our universities with their local environment, not only economic but political and social as well. I started this lecture by emphasizing that these connections were not as strong as they appear to be, except in the case of old university towns such as the ones you represent. Note that there is no contradiction between opening up on a European and international level, and increasing localinks: our most dynamic academics are generally well integrated both locally and internationally. Universities have a lot to gain through their increased participation in the most innovative local groups. A "university in the city" is also or even primarily a university in the polis. The integration of universities in local communities is probably one of the conditions of the preservation (crucial in my view) of their critical and political role. As I have indicated, the pressure of privatization (in the broadest sense of the word) will probably be very strong in the coming years. There is a risk that part of the academic institution may become a functionally specialized layer in the market economy, a sub-system of the industrial and commercial system. But the capacity of universities to develop independant minds and independant discourses, free from all powers, is essential. If they lose this freedom, they lose their soul. Some principles prevailing in the academic sphere differ fundamentally from those prevailing in large economic organizations which control the sphere of business: the priority of truth over usefulness; the notion that all important knowledge must be publicized; the idea that all assertions should be critically discussed, and that everybody can participate in the discussion.

Reminding you of these principles is not speaking for the splendid isolation of universities. I am not insisting on this point to give a final humanistic touch to this lecture. I do think that the defense of humanistic values, of the commitment of universities in favor of social communities and of human needs is essential. But it certainly does not rest upon the defence of the statu quo and corporatist structures. It cannot justify either the systematic rejection of market-based processes, or their uncritical acceptance. As Charles Taylor puts it: "We should not follow the roads suggested by systematic supporters or detractors of modernity. Modern culture is more complex and subtle than that. I think supporters and detractors are both right, but in a way that does not allow for a simple compromise based on the balance of costs and benefits".


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