Higher education funding – Towards greater inequality?

Many students in Europe have been and are still negatively affected by austerity measures and budget cuts in the education sector. For publicly funded higher education systems in Europe, excessive budget cuts ‘justified’ by the difficult economic times have, in many countries, led to poor education quality and an increasingly broken social ladder.

While the student population has increased across the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA,, with around 37.8 million tertiary students enrolled in 2011-12 according to Eurostat, in nearly one quarter of EHEA countries public funding for all aspects of higher education fell, even prior to the financial crisis, between 2005 and 2011.

So while student numbers increase, the trend is to cut public funding and shrink grants. We are told the funding gap will be ‘fixed’ with increased tuition fees and the introduction of student loans.

This moves in the opposite direction to building more egalitarian societies, where talent is nurtured wherever it is found, no matter what someone’s socio-economic background is. It leaves many students with, at best, the option of relying on loans and starting their adult life in debt and with poor employment opportunities.

According to a recent study by the European Students’ Union, Bologna with Student Eyes 2015, a large majority of national student unions – 31 out of 38 – state that the financial situation for students in their country has deteriorated since 2012.

Denmark: €1.16 billion cuts in higher education

One of the most prominent cases in recent years has been Denmark, with the government’s announcement in 2015 that it would cut higher education funding by €1.16 billion (US$1.3 billion) over the next four years. These are the largest cuts to the education budget in Denmark’s history.

The Danish Students’ Union and the Secondary School Students’ Union in Denmark formed an Education Alliance against the cuts and it has been joined by other student organisations, labour unions, development aid organisations and other stakeholders – 46 organisations in total. Protests organised by the alliance on 29 October 2015 gathered around 40,000 protesters from the education sector, most of them students.

Despite massive resistance from the entire higher education sector, the decision of the Danish government has been enforced and students are experiencing the first consequences of austerity. The government left the management of cuts to institutions themselves so they are affecting various aspects of teaching and learning.

For example, in January the University of Copenhagen announced that it would fire more than 500 academic and support staff. Now it is also closing or merging small language and culture programmes.

Fewer classes and tutoring hours, lack of feedback, a reduced variety of study pathways, study progress reforms and reduced numbers of PhD students – these are only a few of the realities that Danish students face, that are drastically lowering the quality of their studies and the future of research and also putting retention and completion rates at risk.

UK: Underrepresented groups hit hardest

Underrepresented groups in higher education in the United Kingdom are under attack and have been affected the most by cuts to student support mechanisms.

The UK government has just scrapped maintenance grants for poorer students, turning them into loans that will come into effect in the next academic year.

Several studies show that students coming from lower socio-economic or non-academic backgrounds are less likely to enter or even consider pursuing a higher education degree if doing so might lead to a loan burden that lasts for decades.

The Netherlands: Grants turn into loans

Two years ago the Dutch government decided to abolish the basic student grant for students living outside their parents' home, and keep it only for students from lower-socio economic backgrounds, while narrowing the application criteria.

These grants have been turned into a new loan system that was launched in 2015. Higher education students and students from schools and vocational training institutions marched in the streets to protest, demanding to keep the grants, but unfortunately the decision was not reversed.

While the cuts have been justified by the authorities as re-distributing savings to improve learning environments, an impact on student enrolment has already been seen. In 2015 there were 6.8% fewer first-year students enrolled in higher education. We will have to wait longer to evaluate the long-term impact.

Ireland: Tuition fees rise, support services cut

Underfinancing has forced higher education institutions to look for additional sources of income, mostly from students. Tuition fees in Ireland for domestic students, due to cuts in university funding, have risen by between €2,000 and €3,000 a year in combination with cuts to support services.

In Ireland, from 2010-12 two campaigns took place, each in the period directly before annual budgetary announcements, which were made in late November or early December.

Both involved mass protests in Dublin organised by the Union of Students in Ireland. In 2010, between 25,000 and 40,000 protesters gathered during what The Irish Times described as "the largest student protest for a generation".

The central message of these campaigns was that fee increases would drive prospective tertiary level students out of education and abroad. Students opposed an increase in university registration fees and further cuts to student maintenance grants.

Finland: Extra fees for students from outside Europe

Norway, Slovenia and Finland are among the few countries left in Europe where international students from outside the European Union-European Economic Area, or EU-EEA, are not charged for tuition, ensuring a successful environment for internationalisation.

However, the Finnish government has decided to introduce tuition fees for students from outside the EU-EEA from 2017.

The national student unions in all three countries have been championing the fight for tuition-free education for international students. Successful campaigning by students and other education stakeholders resulted in the Norwegian parliament declining a proposal from the government to introduce fees.

Although Finnish students won the fight in 2014, the new government made a subversive decision a year after, regulating higher education institutions to charge international students from €1,500 upwards per academic year.

Students are appalled by the potential consequences including more competition for international students between universities, and putting at risk the future of internationalisation for small regional institutions that could be forced to shut down international programmes.

Between ministers’ commitments and reality

In 2012 the Bucharest Ministerial Conference committed to the idea of higher education as a public good and responsibility. Unfortunately, these commitments have not been followed up. Indeed, quite the opposite.

Higher education is more than serving the short-term interests of the labour market. It is in everyone’s interests that it is properly funded and constitutes a benefit that should not become subject to economic speculation and prey to privatisation and moves to shrink the state.

Europe is not ready for the cost which reducing access to quality higher education in a fast-growing information society will bring. We are not prepared for the dire consequences that may result, including social unrest, extremism, poverty, lack of innovation and lost generations.

We need everyone on board to tackle global challenges such as climate change, rising inequality, adapting to technological changes and human rights challenges.

Liva Vikmane is an executive committee member of the European Students’ Union and Alexandra Antonescu is the union's communications manager.