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Walker's World:Europe's failing universities

Walker's World:Europe's failing universities

By Martin Walker
UPI Editor

Washington, DC, Sep. 27 (UPI) -- Across Europe, where the academic year starts later than in the United States, over 6 million students are this week packing their bags to attend or settling back into some 3,300 universities.

Some, a small handful, will be lucky, attending the ancient and venerable universities on which the reputation of higher education on the old continent still rests. Most will be attending institutions that are second or even third-rate. And many of those who will graduate with decent degrees and a sound education will soon leave Europe for the greater opportunities of the United States.

The state of higher education in Europe is grim, and since students represent a society's willingness to invest in its own future, this is grim news for the 450 million people of the European Union.

The European Commission last year issued a sobering table, ranking the world's best universities, compiled by researchers in Shanghai. Of the top 50, all but 15 were American. From Europe, only Oxford and Cambridge made it into the top 10. The University of London made 11th place. From other EU countries, no university ranked higher than 40, and that was Holland's University of Utrecht.

This should come as no surprise. EU countries spend 1.1 percent of GDP in universities, compared to 2.3 percent in the U.S. A recent survey by the OECD found that annual spending per student in the U.S. comes to around $20,000, roughly twice the figure in Germany and three times that in Spain.

This reflects the long-standing policy in Europe to make university education the responsibility of the state rather than of the student or the family. Private funding of university education stands at 1.2 percent of GDP in the U.S., at 0.6 percent in Japan, and at a miserly 0.2 percent in the EU (and most of this private spending comes from one country -- Britain.)

"The growing under-funding of European universities jeopardizes their capacity to attract and keep the best talent, and to strengthen the excellence of their research and teaching activities," says a new report from the EU Commission.

"Given that it is highly unlikely that additional public funding can alone make up the widening shortfall, new ways have to be found of increasing and diversifying universities' income," the report goes on -- which means that European families may soon have to start thinking of higher education as their business, and not just the responsibility of the state of the already overburdened European taxpayer.

The EU report goes on to note that American universities have far more substantial means than European universities -- on average, they spend two to five times more per student. The resources brought by students themselves, including by the many foreign students, partly explain this gap. But American universities benefit both from a high level of public funding, including through state and federal research and defense credits, and from substantial private funding, particularly for fundamental research, provided by the business sector and philanthropic foundations. America's big private research universities like Harvard and Yale also often have considerable wealth, built up over time through private donations, particularly from graduate associations.

The EU Commission is also starting to panic at the scale of the brain drain from Europe to the U.S. They estimate that around 400,000 EU-born science researchers are working in America, some 40 percent of the total. Another Commission paper published last year found that 75 percent of EU-born U.S. doctorate recipients, who graduated between 1991 and 2000, had no plans to return to Europe. "Better prospects and projects, and easier access to leading technologies were most often cited as reasons behind plans to work abroad", the paper noted.

"European universities are in urgent need of reform," claims Richard Lambert, a member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, in a paper published earlier this year for the Center for European Reform that reflects the way that the weakness of EU universities is starting to worry EU business.

"The universities have a crucial role to play in helping the EU to achieve its goal of becoming the 'most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world'," Lambert went on. "But Europe's higher education institutions are underfunded, poorly organized, over-centralized and subjected to severe political constraints. And, as European governments are already discovering, making the necessary reforms will prove both economically and politically costly."

A lot of EU investment in students is wasted through high dropout rates. Only 42 percent of Italian students taking academically oriented degrees get through their programs, possibly because European degree courses take so long -- often five years or more.

Moreover, there are simply fewer students in Europe than in the U.S. or Japan. Less than 30 percent of 25-34 year olds have complete university education in Denmark, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, Austria and Italy, compared with 40 percent or more in the U.S. and Japan.

The picture is not all bleak. The EU as a whole produces slightly more science and technology graduates than the U.S. does, and science faculties in Britain, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands get very high rankings. But the best news the European (and Australian) universities have had for years has been the impact of 9/11 in clamping down on the numbers of foreign students coming to the U.S. for higher education.

According to the President of Texas A&M University, Robert Gates, applications by foreign students fell by 38 percent on last year. Applications from China to U.S. universities in general had fallen 76 percent last year, and those from India by 58 percent. The Council of Graduate Schools, representing more than 450 universities in the United States, says that international applications to U.S. graduate schools for this year have dropped 32 percent from a year ago.

Asa Hutchinson, deputy head of the Department of Homeland Security, notes that in the last 18 months new security controls have caught 1,600 visa violations and led to 155 arrests. Under the USA Patriot Act, foreign students getting a visa must be registered by their schools into a computerized database that now lists more than 700,000 nonimmigrant foreign students and exchange visitors across 7,318 institutions.

"Foreign students are the exporters of the American experience, and we must be fully committed to welcoming them," Hutchinson noted last month.

But the Europeans are now hoping that the flood of foreign student cash into their institutions will continue. Still, Europe's university woes are not going to be fixed by overseas fees alone. Europe's parents and families, and students themselves through student loans, are going to have to finance the bulk of new funding -- yet another way in which the cozy old state-run European social system is being rendered obsolete by the highly competitive new globalized capitalism that the U.S. pioneered.

This helps me understand some of you posters mo betta and if you red dot me, then I know I'm talking about you!!!

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Paris Has a Secret Subterranean Underworld

Associated Press Writer

PARIS (AP) -- The City of Light harbors a city of darkness, a vast network of subterranean tunnels that once gave refuge to bandits, smugglers and saints, and cradles the bones of some 6 million Parisians. Today, this eerie maze is the haunt of living spirits, from youths looking for adventure to urban explorers carving out a new frontier.

An underground movie house replete with bar and phone service , recently discovered by police, is but a slice of the thriving underworld below Paris.

Some 185 miles of tunnels and underground passageways honeycomb the underbelly of the city, most old quarries for the Lutecian limestone used to build the French capital. Others house electricity and telephone cables.

In the deepest sphere, some 100 feet under, lie the catacombs, holding ancient bones from overstocked cemeteries. Part of the catacombs are open to the public, but dropping into the rest city of darkness is illegal and can be hazardous.

This is not a journey for the faint of heart. One way is a middle-of-the-night descent through a manhole and down a ladder. Once inside, a sand-colored maze of galleries, nooks and crannies unfolds. Ominous holes seem to descend to the center of the Earth.

It's an all-weather trip that includes strolling, sloshing through mud and slithering through narrow tunnels.

"Paris is a Mecca" for underground exploration, said Lazar Kunstmann, a spokesman for the group that set up a cinema across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower. The group has seven other subterranean sites, he said, refusing to give details.

In the eternal night of underground Paris, secrecy is sacrosanct, creating a subculture with its own code and names.

Slipping into the underground, social classes melt away, and "there's a sense of having a double life," said Patrick Aalk, a photographer with more than two decades of experience as an urban explorer.

Like Lewis Carroll's Alice discovered when she fell through a rabbit hole, fear, intrigue and wonder await the subterranean traveler. Instead of a tea party with the Mad Hatter, there are parties by flashlight in dank, musty quarry rooms bearing names like "Byzance," "the Cellar" or "Room Z."

But this strange universe is being increasingly scarred by "cataphiles" who daub graffiti on walls or leave beer cans behind. Some quarry rooms are covered in paint, irking another breed of subterranean spirits who call themselves urban explorers.

The police chief in charge of subterranean Paris fears the new generation of fun-seekers is on a collision course with the urban explorers who regard the underground as part of Paris' patrimony.

"It's a milieu that is becoming more and more mixed ... with some people who can be in opposition to others," Commander Luc Rougerie told The Associated Press.

Cataphiles have haunted the Paris underworld for decades, but the Aug. 23 discovery by police of the cinema, set up by an urban explorers' group calling itself The Perforating Mexican, revealed just how sophisticated life below ground has become.

The cinema seated about 30 people on benches carved from rock - and covered with wood for comfort, according to Kunstmann. The complex included a bar, a restaurant and some annex rooms for privacy.

A toilet drew water from the Trocadero gardens above, where "there was a permanent leak," said Kunstmann. Electricity was siphoned off by wrapping wires around the state power company's cables, he said. "The problem is not to leave a trace on the electricity counter."

According to Kunstmann, the cinema, finished some 18 months ago, was a renovation of a crude theater built three years ago.

"There was a certain surprise" when police found the movie house, Commander Rougerie conceded.

A less sensational but more worrisome discovery was made across town, under the high-security La Sante prison. There, several tunnels, once shut, were partially reopened. Fears that prisoners were plotting an escape or, worse, that terrorists had invaded the underground set off alarms.

In the end, "we think it's amateurs of the underground looking for an old passage," said Catherine Briguet, judicial police spokeswoman. There have been no arrests, she said.

Rougerie warns of dangers, from thin air that can cause queasiness to cave-ins. He cited cases of people falling into 30-foot-deep wells or getting lost. There are no known deaths.

The catacombs have inspired writers from Victor Hugo to Gaston Leroux, whose "Phantom of the Opera" hid in "that infernal underground maze."

"When you go down, you enter the city's past. It's a voyage into the bowels of the city," said Aalk, the photographer.

Through the ages, the catacombs have harbored an eclectic lot. In the 13th century, bandits hid under the Chateau de Vauvert, now the Luxembourg Gardens, and sorcerers used the quarries for black masses during the 1348 plague.

St. Denis, patron saint of France, said Mass in the quarries during the Christian persecution, according to Simon Lacordaire's "The Secret History of Subterranean Paris." During World War II, Resistance fighters used the network as hideouts.

Scoundrels still haunt the underworld.

People have been caught stealing telephone cables, "to resell the copper by the kilo," Rougerie said. Some have also been found carrying old bones from the catacombs.

Nearly two decades ago, there were reportedly 300 accesses to the quarries. Most have been sealed, but new entryways are uncovered by enterprising explorers.

Asked how many accesses exist today, Rougerie, the police official, conceded: "There are those I know and those I don't."

If your fave's coach isn't Richard Williams, that's just her first problem...

I was there when the ALL BLACKS won the World Cup in 2011!!!

"I don't know that I changed all that much. They just found somebody worse." - Aging tennis bad boy Jimmy Connors, referring to John McEnroe, in 1984.

There can never be too many "Sister Slams!"
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