Viewpoint: we need a university check for new EU legislation

12 Mar 2024 | Viewpoint

EU lawmakers need to take universities into account when drawing up new laws. This will stem the growing compliance burden, make for better regulation - and result in more efficient policy making

Thomas Jørgensen is director for policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association

The wave of new EU digital regulation has revealed a particular blind spot in EU policy making. While these regulations are not specific to universities, they do have a considerable impact on the day-to- day running of these institutions, which have to review processes, set up new procedures and allocate resources.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is a standout example of legislation that came with a high cost in terms of compliance. It meant allocating new responsibilities within universities, and because of differences in national implementation made transnational cooperation more difficult. Though it has to be said that on the positive side, the regulation provides some protection against private entities using university data for commercial purposes.

Similarly, the Digital Services Act, which entered into force in February 2024, sets rules for online platforms, big and small. The legal text did not foresee the implications for open access repositories. However, those overseeing these resources now have to deal with new procedures for complaints and submit reports to national authorities. As such, rules that were made for commercial platforms have hit university librarians.

As a last example, the Cyber Resilience Act sets out new and complex requirements for open source software, with serious fines for non-compliance. Although cybersecurity is a concern of universities, there was a serious risk that researchers developing software as open source would face overly onerous (and technically unnecessary) compliance procedures. Luckily, this threat was averted during the legislative process, through changes made to the draft law by the European Parliament.

In sum, universities are getting entangled in EU legislation. This is partly because of the areas where legislation is drawn up, like the digital sphere. However, it is also due to university spheres of interest and activity becoming increasingly entwined with large societal questions, for example, when geopolitics influence academic cooperation. This leads to increased work on compliance, potentially straining resources at a time when universities are called upon to deliver skills, cutting edge knowledge and innovation for artificial intelligence, health, climate and all the other big topics on the political agenda.

Therefore, a better understanding of the concerns of universities is needed when developing new EU legislation: we need a university check.

This could involve different parts of the European Commission. The directorates general for research and for education are already part of the assessment of European regulations, but they are likely to need more resources in order to meet tight internal deadlines, as increased numbers of proposals for EU legislation are checked internally pre-publication. Early internal feedback from the parts of the Commission that are working closely with universities would certainly save time and resources later in the process. We have ex-post evaluations in the European Research Area, which are good and informative. However, they conclude that regulations made without universities in mind only create uncertainty for those institutions when it comes to legal compliance.

At the same time, universities as a whole must look to how they can better respond. Those of us that work for university associations are well prepared for input to soft initiatives and funding programmes, but the complexity and scale of the new legal landscape has changed. It is critical that universities’ representatives in Brussels have an overview of use cases and potential impact to present to lawmakers.

Finally - and this is especially relevant in an election year - the European Parliament could well do better at representing the interests of the millions of students and employees at Europe’s universities.  The present Parliament has a few champions that give voice to university concerns, especially those relating to research and innovation, but there is a need to mobilise more parliamentarians on a wider range of topics that matter to the sector.

A university check will not be one single measure: there must be horizontal integration of a key sector in European regulation. Resources devoted to putting this vision forward will make us all better off in the years to come - with better and more efficient policies.

Thomas Jørgensen is director for policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association.

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