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Why university autonomy matters more than ever

The implications of the political, economic and societal landscape in Europe are becoming ever more complex for Europe’s universities. The Old Continent faces prolonged financial and economic crises, the impact of new technologies on society and labour markets, rising populism, weakening solidarity and pressure on some of its most important values – all of which affect the ability of the higher education and research sectors in fulfilling their missions.

In this scenario, university autonomy and academic freedom are of particular concern, as there is a growing tendency for governments to interfere. We have recently seen concrete cases in countries in Europe, as well as around the world.

This is worrisome as autonomy and academic freedom are crucial to the well-functioning of universities and are essential pillars of the future sustainability of our institutions. Importantly, they are key to securing the right research conditions that lead to scientific progress, benefiting society at large.

Now, more than ever, is the right time to discuss the importance of autonomy and freedom, and how they are impacted by, and linked to, addressing these challenges. It is also the right time to look to the future and highlight that autonomy is not a goal to be pursued in itself, but a fundamental pre-requisite for universities to be able to develop strategic profiles, operate in a competitive environment and deliver on their very important societal duties.

Autonomy scorecard

Against this backdrop, the European University Association or EUA is promoting a renewed European-wide dialogue on the issue. Its annual conference, “Autonomy and Freedom: The future sustainability of universities”, hosted by the University of Bergen in Norway last week, marked 10 years of EUA work on university autonomy.

To support this dialogue, EUA launched a full-scale update of its Autonomy Scorecard. A central reference in discussions and analyses of institutional autonomy, the release profiles and scores 29 higher education systems throughout Europe.

By generating information on the current state of university autonomy and governance reforms, the scorecard allows for benchmarking of national policies as well as the exchange of good practice. It provides European institutions and policy-makers with data so informed decisions can be made. It also contributes to raising awareness in the university sector of the changes needed to create a regulatory environment favourable to university autonomy.

While EUA’s analysis shows improvements, it also reveals new constraints in several key areas. In fact, while earlier assessments showed promising developments towards more autonomy in Europe, there is currently no distinguishable uniform trend. A structured, global view is still lacking and heated discussions are taking place right now across the continent.

The study shows that university autonomy is also affected by factors such as stronger accountability measures and micromanagement. The challenging economic context has an impact in financial management, staffing matters and organisational aspects in several countries. In addition, public authorities exert stronger steering through funding mechanisms, and concentration processes, like mergers, also have an effect.

Clearly, attempts to limit or undermine university autonomy take many forms. Some are more obvious than others, and some gain more attention while others go unrecognised. The scorecard aims to provide a balanced view to a much-needed dialogue, as well as a tool for both university and government leaders to chisel out new approaches to a very crucial issue.

In today’s tense international political environment, promoting university autonomy as a core principle is not only highly relevant, it is a duty.

Thomas Estermann is director of governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association or EUA, the collective voice of approximately 800 universities across Europe and 33 national rectors’ conferences. He conducted the study and presented the updated Autonomy Scorecard at the EUA Annual Conference, “Autonomy and Freedom: The future sustainability of universities”, hosted by the University of Bergen in Norway on 6 April 2017.
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