EUROPE: Austerity threatens autonomy, EUA warns

An authoritative study of university autonomy across 26 European countries has found "worrying signs" that the economic crisis and austerity measures have led to instances of tighter controls of university budgets, "unnecessary" administrative burdens and reduced financial autonomy. Estonia and the UK rank highest on scorecards that rate tertiary systems in four areas of autonomy.

University Autonomy in Europe II - The scorecard, launched by the European University Association in Brussels on 15 November, is an analysis of the current state of institutional autonomy in Europe.

The study found evidence that, in response to the economic crisis, public funding was not only diminishing but also changing in the nature and form in which it is provided.

"Public funding is increasingly provided subject to conditions tied to its allocation or accompanied by growing accountability requirements," the report says.

"This has given public authorities more steering power over universities, which significantly contributes to reducing universities' capacity to manage their own funds freely, and hence curtails their autonomy."

The report warns: "Such developments are worrisome as they can hinder universities' capacity to overcome the crisis successfully."

The study includes four scorecards which rank and rate higher education systems in four autonomy areas: organisation, finance, staffing and academic autonomy.

Each scorecard ranks national or federal state systems according to a percentage score, with 0% the lowest and 100% the highest possible level of autonomy for each area. In each scorecard, each system has also been assigned to one of four groups - high, medium high, medium low and low - depending on their score.

The project covers 28 higher education systems in 26 countries (due to Germany's federal structure, three states were included in the study). Overall, the scorecards use a total of more than 30 indicators across the four autonomy areas.

"This report and the publication of the autonomy scorecards are designed to engage all higher education stakeholders in a more in-depth debate on autonomy and ultimately help improve national higher education systems," says report author Thomas Estermann.

"Autonomy does not mean the absence of regulations," Estermann adds. "Universities accept the challenges of working in a competitive global environment, but to do so they need the necessary managerial freedom, light and supportive regulatory frameworks and sufficient financing, otherwise they will be placed at a disadvantage."

Estonia and the UK are the only states represented in the high scoring group for all four autonomy areas. Ireland and the Scandinavian and Baltic states also have consistently high scores, while Greece and Turkey perform less well across the board.

France is never ranked higher than 16th (for organisational autonomy), falls to 22nd for financial autonomy and languishes at 27th for staffing and the bottom of the table for academic autonomy. Sweden's performance is also lacklustre, achieving 19th place (equal with Spain and Switzerland) for organisational autonomy and a 15th (equal with Finland) for financial autonomy.

While three of the four areas are vital technocratic indicators, it is the area of academic autonomy that touches the heart of the autonomy debate.

Ireland heads the table with 100%, followed by Norway (97%), the UK (94%), Estonia (92%), Finland (90%) and Iceland (89%). Greece and France are at the bottom with 40% and 37% respectively.

When the four autonomy areas are aggregated to create a single table, the UK is at the top with a score of 94.75%, with only Estonia, Finland and Ireland in the leading group scoring more than 81%. At the bottom of the table, Greece is the only country in the lowest category (0% to 40%) with a score of 33%. Cyprus, France and Turkey achieve less than 50% on aggregate scores.

Indicators used to derive the academic autonomy ranking include the power to set student numbers, to start and terminate academic programmes and design their content, and the degree of independence in quality assurance.

Since the EUA published its first report on autonomy in 2009, there have been encouraging signs that recent reforms in a number of countries have given universities more autonomy. However, the association believes there are still many constraints which limit institutional performance.

On financial autonomy, a number of countries do not allow universities to freely allocate funds internally or to retain surpluses, limiting their capacity for effective long-term planning and strategic development. For that reason, the EUA believes that governments should extend the length of funding periods.

On staffing autonomy, while a number of countries enable universities to recruit staff freely, many institutions are still unable to set employees' salaries. This can act as a considerable obstacle when seeking to attract talented academic and administrative staff in a competitive international environment.

Finally, the EUA says its research shows that national reforms aimed at improved autonomy have often been introduced without providing institutions with the human resources and management support needed to make use of their new independence.

"The association therefore calls on public authorities and the European Commission to support universities in this area."

The two-year project, supported by the European Commission's Lifelong Learning Programme, has been carried out in conjunction with EUA project partners including the German Rectors' Conference, Universities Denmark, the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

The report can be downloaded from the EUA's website here.