European student numbers rise, but funding falls

The conception of higher education as a public good and a public responsibility is changing. Most European countries use cost sharing and there is a trend towards shifting the burden of study costs onto students.

There are not many countries left in Europe that do not charge their domestic students some form of tuition fees – some 19 out of 26 countries observed in a two-year research project organised by the European Students' Union (ESU) and with the name Financing the Students’ Future (FINST), do so.

Denmark, Finland, Malta, Slovenia, Sweden and Norway do still have tuition-free higher education systems, at least at undergraduate level. Austria does not formally recognise tuition fees within its legal system, but universities can decide for themselves whether to charge for tuition or not.

Several countries – such as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – offer subsidised places where some students do not have to pay tuition fees, usually according to academic ability.

Worrying situation of international students

The situation of international – non-European Union or non-European Economic Area – students is even more worrying.

Norway and Malta (out of the 26 countries observed for FINST) are the only countries that do not charge international students special fees. Finland is similar at the moment, but there is a pilot study under way on the effects of introducing such fees and even an initiative to change the law on this issue.

FINST also points out that in some countries, such as Ireland and the United Kingdom, tuition fees for international students are much higher than for domestic or EU students, and this shows that they have already adopted the notion of education as being a service and a private good.

The funding gap is widening

It is not difficult to conclude that the funding gap is widening. For the past 50 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of students across the whole of Europe. This increase can also be observed in a shorter time line – for example, Eurostudent-Eurostat 2009 showed that the student population increased by 10% between 2003-04 and 2008-09.

The rise in the student population (massification) has not been followed by a rise in public funding; in the past few years the level of public funding for higher education has been declining and in certain countries there have been cuts close to 50% of the overall budget for higher education institutions.

This needs to be addressed soon, or it will have a very negative effect on both accessibility and quality of higher education.

We at the ESU know that students see the decline in public funding as a very worrying trend and fear that it may have severe and unpredictable consequences for the student population, such as severely limiting access to and completion of higher education for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds as well as influencing the choice of programmes students opt for or even creating a bubble of student loans.

What is even more problematic is that we have not observed any improvements in the systems for financing students; indeed, we have noticed an increase in the use of loans to finance study.

We conclude that the situation of students is getting worse and that there is currently no sign of any improvement.

Because most of the data used in our study were from 2009 or before, we also have not yet managed to analyse the effects that the economic crisis and austerity measures have had on the financing of higher education and how that has impacted on students.

Judging by the cuts already made to national budgets for higher education, we presume that the effects will be negative.

Governments must invest in education

Even though ministers often state that they are committed to providing public funding for higher education, the data gathered do not support this. Developments so far show that most countries are cutting down on investments in their future, such as higher education.

Changes to public budgets, especially for education, cannot be done in a linear way or without careful consideration. They should always include wide-ranging discussion among stakeholders on what countries want to achieve and the appropriate way to reach those goals.

All the stakeholders in the FINST research agreed that higher education has several and diverse positive benefits, for individuals and societies alike; and we would like to believe that there will always be an agreement that higher education is and will remain a public good and a public responsibility.

Therefore, public funding should remain the most important source of financing – both of teaching and research in higher education institutions, and of students.

* Financing the Students’ Future is one of the ESU’s flagship projects, focusing on financing and in particular on students’ views about financing higher education in European countries. During the project’s two-year time-span, the ESU has been writing articles on the most significant areas of higher education financing, designing future funding scenarios and preparing student policy recommendations on the funding of higher education. More information about the project and its outcomes can be found here.

* Rok Primozic is vice-chair of the ESU.