The first European university-business forum was held in Brussels on February 28-29, attended by around 250 representatives of higher education, business and education policy makers, to discuss ideas to promote co-operation and exchange of good practice between university and business. The European Commission organised the forum in line with the EU's re-launched Lisbon strategy to achieve more jobs and better growth for all.

A key driver behind the forum was the European Commission's 2006 communication 'Delivering on the Modernisation Agenda for Universities: Education, Research and Innovation', which urges universities to recognise "that their relationship with the business community is of strategic importance and forms part of their commitment to serving the public interest".

The Commission aims to ensure that universities take business needs into account in their curricula to prevent an eventual skills mismatch as graduates enter the labour market. Launching the forum, European Education Commissioner Ján Figel pointed out that "universities need to know how the corporate world evolves and what skills business needs" in order to overcome the skill mismatch paradigm. He also listed a number of benefits from this co-operation, in particular, maximising investment in human capital, increase funding for universities, staying at the edge of innovation, and speeding up transfer of research into innovation for business.

Figel pointed out that "Europe has been too weak for too long in bringing the worlds of university academia and business enterprise together, to achieve successful commercial exploitation of academic excellence".

"Business and academia need to trust each other," he said in a response to fears that business might distort the tradition of academic mission or interfere with traditional academic freedom.

Odile Quintin, the Commission's director general for education and culture, remarked how even "the business world cannot afford to ignore higher education" referring to the conclusions of the report 'Future Skill Needs' issued by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP). The report forecasts a dramatic increase of qualification requirements across most jobs in Europe by 2015.

Rossella Iraci Cappuccinello from the European Students Union, said students' employability requires a long term vision and called for co-operation that keeps "in mind that the vision behind actions has to be a long term one".

Stakeholders acknowledged that although some co-operation initiatives between the academic world and business had been introduced in some countries it would take time to create a new mindset and for all EU universities to fully embrace the ideas of co-operation with business.

As Prof. Alan Barrel from the University of Cambridge explained, "the Lisbon agenda will not be delivered by this generation, but by the next one", in view of the time needed for "bottom-up grassroots changes" to happen and contribute to creativity and innovation.

The following key issues were discussed during four forum workshops:

1) The modernisation of university governance structures with help from businesses;

2) Curricular changes targeting greater employability and a more entrepreneurial mind-set among graduates;

3) Academic mobility between academia and business;

4) The provision of lifelong education and retraining through co-operation between universities and companies.

There is tangible momentum on the theme of university-business co-operation and the European Commission is already planning to issue a communication on the subject next year to crystallise the ideas proposed in the forum and develop further exchanges.

In the meantime, three thematic forums will be organised later this year to develop a lasting structured dialogue between stakeholders. The National Commission for Higher Education (NCHE) is planning to participate in these forums and will be promoting discussion between local business sectors and relevant education institutions to create a dialogue and identify areas for improvement to respond to emerging business needs.

Further information about university-business co-operation and the forum proceedings may be accessed through the following link:

http://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/educ/business/index_en.html

Ms Gauci is an NCHE officer responsible for student affairs.