EUROPE: Universities still lack full autonomy

European universities have less ability to manage their own affairs than is generally realised and less than is desirable, according to a new survey by the European University Association. The report covers 33 countries and finds that genuine autonomy is lacking in several critical sectors, above all in that of finance.

This could have worrying consequences for the future of many institutions. The EAU said that at a time when the overall levels of public funding in education were stagnating and universities were increasingly being asked to look for alternative funding sources, the lack of autonomy was a real threat for the sustainability of Europe's universities.

The report noted that many governments, the university sector itself and the European Commission had recognised increased autonomy for universities would be a crucial step towards modernisation in the 21st century. In practice, however, "public authorities still play too central a role in the regulation of the higher education system and, in a large number of countries, still exert direct control".

Although these authorities in a number of countries had moved away from direct state control towards more indirect steering mechanisms, universities generally still lacked autonomy in many crucial areas, particularly in terms of managing finances.

The report said that, in 26 of the 33 systems, public funding was allocated in the form of block grants, increasingly based on performance criteria. But even block-grant funding did not mean that universities could necessarily use funding as they wished. Often there were restrictions to prevent shifting finances between broad categories.

The study looked at four key areas of autonomy: organisational autonomy (academic and administrative structures leadership, governance); academic autonomy (defining study fields, student numbers, student selection, and structure/content of degrees); financial autonomy (the ability to raise funds, own buildings, borrow money); and staffing autonomy (the ability to independently recruit, promote and develop academic and non academic staff).

In only half the countries do universities have the right to own their buildings, and even those with ownership are not always free to sell without government supervision. Most systems (22) allowed universities to borrow money but legislation could restrict the amounts.

"In some countries...staff are increasingly directly paid and/or employed by the university rather than the government," said the report. But there were limits on the extent they could manage individual salary costs while in almost half the countries, all or the majority of staff had civil servant status, a less flexible form of employment.