EU states reach agreement over tech institute

European Commission announces developments in the controversial plan for a technology institute to rival the United States' MIT

The dream of a European rival to the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology has inched closer after EU member states agreed on its structure.

The European Commission said on Monday that its Competitiveness Council had agreed a general approach to the European Institute of Technology (EIT). The European Commission has also claimed that the EIT could "begin operations" as soon as next year.

If approved by the European Parliament later this year, the structure of the EIT will be that of a federation of so-called "knowledge and innovation communities" (KICs), which are partnerships between academic institutions, businesses and other stakeholders. Each KIC will work in a particular field of interest, with EU priorities like climate change and renewable energy at the top of the list.

"This is a very important step forward, bringing the EIT closer to lift-off," said European Commission president José Manuel Barroso. "By strengthening Europe's capacity to bridge the innovation gap with its major competitors, the EIT will help drive a Europe of results. It will help us boost jobs and growth in a lasting and environmentally sustainable way."

The level of funding for the EIT was also revealed on Monday. The European Commission will contribute €308.7m (£207.7m) to help cover the costs of the EIT's governing structure and co-ordination between the KICs, with further funding coming from a "variety of sources". The next stage in the process would be approval by the European Parliament later this year, after which a governing board would be appointed and the EIT's structure finalised. But it could take as much as two years after that for the first KICs to start functioning.

The establishment of an EIT has long been a controversial issue. Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe, chief executive of the higher-education action group Universities UK, has slammed the scheme as being "politically motivated" and has suggested that tax and regulatory incentives would be a better way to stimulate innovation in technology. Outspoken MP Derek Wyatt has called the scheme "complete lunacy" and claimed it is 20 years out of date.

Universities UK would not comment specifically on the latest development, but a spokesperson reiterated the organisation's opposition to the European Commission's "prescriptive" approach, arguing instead for a "more modest", phased approach to the scheme.