Strategic actors in the Eurolandscape: meet ‘The Lisbon Council’

Earlier this week we posted an entry on a new European Commission ‘Communication’ – a Strategic Framework for International Science and Technology Cooperation.

In working up this entry it became clear to us that some of the state-crafting language to describe different stages of the policy process in the construction of Europe needed decoding to enable the reader to assess the relative importance of particular initiatives. For example, what is a Communication? what is its status? who is it to? and so on. While this seems an obvious point to make–that the lexicon to describe aspects of the policy process is quite different around the globe–finding a web-link with an adequate explanation of this was quite a different matter.

So when today’s Policy Brief on University Systems Ranking from The Lisbon Council hit cyberspace (we’ll profile the briefing tomorrow), it seemed that here, too, was another instance when names and terms could be rather confusing. The tight linking of the idea of ‘Lisbon’ to ‘Council’ tends to suggest that this organisation is one of a number of European bodies that make up the official governing structure of Europe. However, this is not the case. thelisboncouncil

So, who are they, and how does The Lisbon Council fit into the Eurolandscape of policymaking? This is the first in a series of posts where we introduce key strategic actors involved in constituting and governing higher education within Europe and beyond.

The Lisbon Council–or more properly The Lisbon Council for Economic Competitiveness and Social Renewal–is an independent think-tank and policy network created in 2003 to advance the now famous Lisbon 2000 Agenda; of making Europe “…the most dynamic, globally competitive, knowledge-based economy in the world….”.

According to their website, The Lisbon Council, whose tag line ‘making Europe fit for the future’, is committed to

…defining and articulating a mature strategy for managing current and future challenges. Above all, we are seeking strategies based on inclusion, opportunity and sustainability that will make the benefits of modernisation available to all our citizens.

Our network – concerned citizens, top economists, public figures, NGO leaders, business strategists and leading-edge thinkers – lends its energy, brain power and dedication to solving the great economic and social challenges of our times. At the centre of our activities are solution-oriented seminars, thought-provoking publications, media appearances and public advocacy.

We can get a sense of the kind of strategic thinking The Lisbon Council advocate to realize a globally competitive Europe by also looking at its projects (including the Human Capital Center), publications, Founding Fathers Lecture Series, and u-Tube presence.

Four ‘founding fathers’ are identified for the Lecture Series as representing Europe’s innovative visionary past – The Robert Schuman Lecture (French politician and regarded as founder of the EU), The Ludwig Erhard Lecture (German politician who presided over the post War German recovery), The Jean Jacque Rousseau Lecture (French philosopher of enlightenment thinking/socialism), and The Guglielmo Marconi Lecture (Italian inventor).

This year the Guglielmo Marconi Lecture which we feature below was delivered by Charlie Leadbetter – well-known for his work with UK-based think-tank DEMOS. Leadbetter’s lecture engages with the Commission’s 2009 theme, creativity and innovation.

Now the important thing to point out is that The Lisbon Council think-tank agenda articulates closely with the ‘new Lisbon Agenda’, launched in 2005; to reorient and reinvigorate Lisbon 2000 agenda. It is at this point that we see the European Commission’s engagement with globalization as an outward looking strategy, the move toward supply-side economics, the prioritization of human capital strategies, greater questioning of the Social Europe policies, and a commitment to press ahead with the reform of Member State’s higher education systems to make a European higher education system. These commitments have been repeatedly reinforced by European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, as we see in his speech to The Lisbon Council earlier this year.

In following European policymaking in higher education, it is therefore important to look closely at organizations like The Lisbon Council, and the kind of futures thinking/policy shaping work they are engaged in as part of a wider governance of European higher education.

Susan Robertson

Brainpower famine in Eastern Europe: food for thought

lisboncouncilreport.jpgThe Brussels based think-tank, The Lisbon Council, sees trouble ahead for the countries of both Western and Eastern Europe. The Eastern European low-wage, low-tax, FDI-driven growth rates of today, accelerated by membership of the EU, are not going to last. A combination of low-birth rates and increasing brain drain will combine to fix their economic trajectories at well below the EU average with no prospect of improvement. And that is a problem for Western Europe too: it has been the dynamism of the East which has given a fillip to the West.

In its just issued report, The European Human Capital Index: The Challenge of Central and Eastern Europe, the Lisbon Council claims:

There is a very real risk that in coming decades Central and Eastern Europe could become a sparsely-populated area with a declining workforce that will have to shoulder the burden of a population set to experience unprecedented levels of aging and decline. At stake is nothing less than the long-term sustainability of these remarkable countries, which have added so much to Europe’s history, economy and diversity.

Now, if we look beyond the doom-laden futurology and risk of future collapse which seems to be so much a part of these calls for action, we can begin to see the contradictions in the analysis and the prescriptions. The EU economy is driven by processes of centralization and concentration and we can see this in the movements of knowledge, technology and capital. Universities are heavily implicated in this and the mobility of students and the highly skilled is the brain drain which is going to accelerate the emptying of the East. The extension of service and production commodity chains into the East and the region’s growth as a consumer market has gone hand in hand with their low tax, flexible labor laws and low state spending. In short the growth model is predicated on the very things which the Human Capital Index measures as being lacking.

The Lisbon Council solutions – reformed universities, on the job skills training, investment in knowledge, skills and innovation – require a shift in the growth model and the question is, how to achieve that within the context of macro and micro economic orthodoxy, the EU promotion of mobility and double-think about brain drain. At the time of the formation of the EU single market there was a response – the EU as a whole had to invest in the conditions for more and better jobs and a geographical spread so that capital, technology and knowledge are shifted away from concentration and centralization. The problems and solutions were posed in those terms which of course requires an increased European tax base and a commitment to significantly greater regional re-distribution and planning.

The challenges have always been clear and the solutions filled with all sorts of dilemmas which don’t even get a mention from the Lisbon Council. Human capital mantras suggest that the governments in Eastern Europe need to improve the supply of human capital, invest more in formal education, create their entrepreneurial universities and attract migrant (cheap) labor from the potentially massive new pool of Turkey etc. And so move themselves onto a different growth path. Perhaps.

One thing that is increasingly clear, is that the Economics of Education and the Human Capital theorists, and this report comes straight out of that stable, can offer descriptions based on such measures as its Human Capital Index, but its policy relevance is restricted and amounts to the same old same old. Quite how societies approaching the sorts of collapse envisaged in the report would react and what shibboleths of neo-liberal human capital development models would then be questioned seems to be beyond their remit. A pity.

Peter Jones