EU: University autonomy could boost competition

The development of university autonomy in Europe was a prerequisite for getting more funds from private and public sources, delegates attending the two-day EUA conference concluded. While technical finance issues dominated the discussions by 120 education experts from 30 countries, autonomy was a recurring issue.

Mats Ola Ottosson, director of Uppsala University, Sweden, put it bluntly: "The more legally and financially autonomous an institution is, the easier it is to get funds".

Ottosson referred to an EUA survey covering nine universities which concluded that, despite inevitable contrasts in administration, higher education institutions should have certain common basic legal abilities: that they should be independent parties in legal disputes, have the right to obtain loans on a commercial basis, and be able to buy and sell assets and to charge students fees.

If such autonomy was standard, competition was more likely to become a performance-driving factor inspiring university performance, the conference was told. This was important given that many higher education institutions still had deficiencies in management and their relationship with stakeholders.

But there were potential pitfalls and increased competition between higher education institutions could impede fruitful cooperation.

International sources of money were becoming more important year by year, Ottoson said. In recent years international sources had increased from 2% to 7% at Uppsala while at the same time public funding was going down.

This enhanced internationalisation was noted by an Austrian government report discussed at the conference. The report said the availability of foreign finance encouraged the development of more innovative curricula, inspiring development and change.

In a separate session Franz Strehl, of Austria’s Linz University, warned against another negative aspect of competition – formal comparisons between universities, often couched as league tables of quality. Strehl said these were almost an obsession to some universities and were frequently “untrue – to be polite”.

One of the problems was that such comparisons often involved data which was out of date and therefore no longer valid.

He said that politically speaking, EU universities had to tackle the question of trust between themselves and governments against a background of “historical mistrust”. For example, there was a constant danger of the authorities reducing support for basic research where there was no obvious financial return, he said.