Estelle Borrell knew she wanted to work in law since she was a teenager, when she interned at a court in Versailles, France. "The lawyers in their black robes, they were like gods to me,'' said the 24-year-old Parisian.
Borrell studied law at Vienna University, where she dreamed of putting her passion into practice at an international organization. She got a shock when she began working at a Vienna law firm.
"I knew how to resolve cases on paper, but when I got into the law firm it was really ridiculous,'' Borrell said. "My boss asked me to call a judge and I was absolutely not able to do it. I didn't even have the vocabulary I needed to do a really simple call.''
Borrell, who is now back in France seeking work while continuing legal studies in Paris, had found out firsthand what educators, industry and governments across the continent are slowly coming to acknowledge as globalization intensifies competition and a devastating economic crisis swells youth unemployment: Europe's universities, many founded during the Middle Ages, are failing to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century world.
Outmoded teaching, overcrowded classrooms and even broken windows are common complaints by both teachers and students at French universities – even the Sorbonne, one of Europe's oldest and most illustrious schools. Classes often begin with a hunt for spare chairs as classrooms built for 20 students regularly pack 40 or more. Sometimes students are forced to sit on tables or the floor. On Twitter, students post such complaints as: "Monday morning 9:00 in the constitutional law lecture at Paris 8, freezing my toes off, not very fun.''
Recently, a group of overwhelmed instructors at Paris University published an open letter to France's education minister in daily newspaper Liberation to voice their frustration and call for the repeal of a reform that decentralized university control, which they blame for many of the universities' woes.
In Spain, where universities are in even more dire financial straits, the heads of around 50 state-run universities recently made a joint statement warning of "irreparable deterioration'' in education as crisis cutbacks choke academic institutions and threaten to hold back economic recovery.
Officials recognize the problem.
The European Commission, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Federation of European Employers all have studies under way to examine why the continent's universities are failing.