EU: Call for countries to invest in higher education

The European University Association has called on the continent's governments to commit to major investment in higher education and research, and to renew efforts to reach the Barcelona target of 3% of GDP investment in research and the 2% investment in higher education proposed by the European Commission.

In a report on the impact of the economic crisis on national higher education systems in Europe, the EUA refers to the increasingly difficult situation faced by European universities.

It notes that many governments have made significant cuts to public funding of higher education and there are growing fears in other countries that cuts are likely to follow in coming months.

"Public funding accounts for the majority of university income across Europe," the report says. "EUA's work has shown there have already been major cuts to public spending in Latvia (an initial cut of 48% in 2009 followed by an 18% cut in 2010) and heavy cuts of 5-10% in Italy (over three years), Ireland, UK, Estonia, Lithuania and Romania."

The report says cuts of up to 5% have also been registered in the Czech Republic and Poland as well as in a number of South-eastern Europe countries including Croatia and Serbia.

Elsewhere, a number of governments have discarded previously made commitments to increase higher education spending. In Hungary, the government has cancelled plans announced in 2007 to increase overall university funding leaving universities with 15% less financial support than previously expected.

Similar reports have also come from the Flemish Community in Belgium which has seen a funding freeze replace a previously promised increase of 10%.

"Only a small number of European governments have upheld their commitments or indeed provided new investments to fund higher education," the EUA says.

In Germany, where financing of higher education is mostly the responsibility of state authorities, the federal government has increased investments to support the financial security of German higher education and research institutions.

These investments will provide an additional EUR800 million (US$975 million) under the renewed higher education pact which will support growing student numbers until 2015. The federal government will also invest a further EUR2.7 billion from 2012 to 2015 into the German Excellence Initiative and provide a funding increase of 5% per year until 2015 for the Innovation and Research Pact.

France has also increased its overall higher education funding by investing almost EUR30 billion this year into key priority areas. From this, EUR11 billion will be invested to improve the overall quality of higher education, EUR8 billion will go towards developing research while the remaining funds will be used to create new university campuses of excellence or towards restructuring existing ones.

The report says that EUA's monitoring has also collected evidence on the impact of the crisis on private funding for universities. It says this is becoming an increasingly important part of universities' financial structures, helping to diversify their income streams and contributing to their overall financial sustainability.

"The economic crisis has, in some countries, fostered a public debate on private contributions to higher education. Heated discussions are currently taking place on the introduction or increase of tuition fees to help universities reduce the funding gap which has been created by the decreasing levels of public funding," the report states.

"For example, changes are now occurring even in the Nordic countries where there was previously broad agreement among society and politicians that higher education should be exclusively publicly funded. Finland, Sweden and Denmark have all started to introduce tuition fees at least for some offered programmes and/or will charge tuition to foreign students.

"The impact on other types of private funding is less clear for now as data are more complex to collect and analyse. Although EUA's monitoring showed no direct impact on current collaborative projects between universities and industry, individual accounts from Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland have highlighted some difficulties in starting new projects."

The EUA says reports from foundations which offer another potential source of income for higher education institutions show that their funding base has also been affected by the crisis.

As well, indications suggest the economic crisis has also had negative impacts on the development of university autonomy in certain countries. These include introducing more direct steering mechanisms, and regulations as well as unbalanced accountability procedures which the EUA believes will be counterproductive in making universities an essential player in overcoming the crisis.

* The European University Association is the representative organisation of the European universities and the national rectors' conferences.