Europe’s higher education crystal ball gazing

From the onward march of internationalisation to the fight by academics and students against cuts to their funding, 2013 proved to be a year of rapid change for higher education. But what does the 2014 crystal ball predict for Europe, the birthplace of universities and a continent slowly emerging from economic crisis?

Universities that had withstood the ravages of time for centuries found themselves at the mercy of savage cuts in funding, particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe – and the pain is expected to continue well into 2014.

While the economic turmoil affected the whole of the continent, the public funding observatory of the European University Association, or EUA, sees a widening of the gap between cash-strapped Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania and Latvia and the higher education sectors in many of the countries in Northern and Western Europe.

With Greece’s higher education system losing a quarter of its public funding in the last five years – and others not that far behind – Thomas Estermann, head of EUA’s Unit for Governance, Autonomy and Funding, said: “There will be further cuts in some countries for 2014. In Portugal for example they have already been announced.”

EUA monitoring shows the spread of the pain between 2008 and 2012 for some and the gain in public investment for others – most notably Sweden, Norway and Germany.

Rok Primožic, the Slovenian chair of the European Students’ Union, or ESU, is pessimistic and said: “Public funds for higher education will continue to decrease in the majority of European countries as the financial crisis is not over and governments are still proposing additional austerity measures.

“However, we expect the cuts will be less than in 2013. Budgets for universities and students are already stretched very thinly and universities will start closing their doors if too much more is cut, as happened in Greece in October.”

Visa controls and tuition fees

Funding is only one of the issues likely to dominate European higher education in 2014.

For while most in the sector now embrace global education and want to attract more international talent to European universities, governments in many countries are imposing tighter restrictions on immigration and the Norwegian government has become the latest to consider imposing tuition fees for non European Union and European Free Trade Area students.

Primožic is afraid that stricter immigration laws and more tuition fees will reduce the number of international students coming to Europe in 2014. “We expect the European Union to push for better policies when it comes to visas for students and researchers.

“However the situation still looks grim with toughening immigration policies across Europe and fees being implemented for students from outside Europe. This is happening despite Europe clearly benefiting from these students.”

However Michael Gaebel, director of the EUA’s Higher Education Policy Unit, said: “There is no common immigration policy in Europe; individual EU member states have their specific approaches, and many are clearly interested in attracting more international students."

Internationalisation agendas

Even in the United Kingdom, where the Home Office has been making loud noises about reducing immigration and where there has been a slowdown in student mobility from countries like India and Pakistan, there has been a recent growth in the issue of visas for study purposes.

Janet Ilieva, head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s observatory, predicts that most of the growth in international enrolments in 2013-14 will be driven by undergraduate students from China, Malaysia and Brazil and by international students on government scholarships, such as Brazil’s huge Science Without Borders initiative.

Gaebel predicts that 2014 will also see Eastern European countries becoming more active in establishing their own internationalisation agendas and points to growing participation in the Science Without Borders programme by Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Other countries like Sweden, which saw a massive decline in international students after tuition fees for non-EU students were introduced, are working harder to market themselves abroad, as University World News reported.


China and Brazil will continue to be the focus of much of the international activities of European universities, but Africa is seen as the next big thing.

Gaebel said: “Without any doubt, Africa will be the region with the highest growth in higher education in the medium to long term. Europe should also be more attentive towards the potential of those who do not come voluntarily. For example, there are thousands of Syrian refugees coming to Europe, many of them well educated.”

Hans-Georg van Liempd, president of the European Association for International Education or EAIE, agreed: “Whereas in the past, all higher education institutions in the West were going to China and other countries in Asia and Latin America, the next step is increased cooperation with African countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Botswana and Mozambique.

“The demand for higher education in Africa is increasing and African countries offer a wealth of human and natural resources.”

But Karina Ufert, who stepped down as chair of the ESU in July and is now a consultant on the UNESCO-China-Africa tripartite initiative, said: “It is not enough to create programmes to attract young talented people to come to Europe and build a so-called ‘elite’.

“The policy has to shift to strengthening higher education in African countries, particularly in the areas of quality assurance, recognition, teacher training and research.”

Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+

Thanks to the last minute agreement by the European Parliament to the EU budget for 2014-20, the higher education sector in the European Union can look forward to a more comfortable start to 2014.

The budget earmarks €79 billion (US$109 billion) for the all-important Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation and a further €14.7 billion for Erasmus+ over the next seven years.

The 40% increase in the budget for Erasmus+ will provide opportunities for more than four million Europeans to study, train, gain work experience and volunteer abroad. In addition to providing grants for individuals, it will also support transnational partnerships.

Dennis Abbott, the European Commission’s spokesperson for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, said: “Starting in 2014, Erasmus+ will help to internationalise study programmes by funding cross-border cooperation on programme design and delivery.

“The agreement to increase EU spending on education and training by 40% represents a commitment to a whole new level and offers a fantastic new opportunity for universities and colleges to forge durable new partnerships and to strengthen their capacity to deliver relevant, high quality education.

"It will help Europe to attract students from across the globe. A key aim is to develop EU mobility programmes so that they are compatible with systems in other regions and strategic partner countries across the world.”

Estermann, for the EUA, said the importance of EU support should not be underestimated. “For some Eastern European universities the structural funds can represent in some years more than half of their total budget.

“Apart from the financial aspect, these programmes add an important dimension to foster collaboration and mobility.”

The challenge for 2014 and beyond for European universities is to use the historic agreements made on Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 to build on existing excellence and internationalisation, said Joanna Newman, director of the UK HE International Unit.

“European higher education needs to think creatively about internationalisation and to focus, not solely on international student recruitment, but on sustainable partnerships, transnational education and harnessing new technologies to promote and deliver European higher education to international audiences.”

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.