Universities face funding pressure right across Europe

In at least 20 out of 24 European countries, funding for higher education has either been cut or has not kept pace with increases in student numbers, according to new data published by the 2016 Public Funding Observatory.

The data, released at the European University Association’s funding forum in Porto, Portugal, reveals, for example, that although public funding to universities has increased in 11 countries between 2008 and 2015, rising enrolment meant that funding per student fell in seven of these.

Meanwhile, public funding has fallen in 13 systems; and in seven of these, student numbers have been growing.

This indicates that “almost all systems in Europe are under pressure”, the European University Association or EUA says. The exceptions are Norway and Sweden.

The EUA says many national funders have cut their funding to universities to compensate for the loss through European funding, which itself is under threat and which has become increasingly inefficient.

It is the first time since the funding observatory began collecting data in 2008 that trends for long-term funding have been compared with developments in student numbers.

Thomas Estermann told University World News:“If you take those two figures together you can see that most of Europe’s systems are under pressure, even in countries where funding has increased, because student numbers have increased even more.”

He said of four countries not under pressure, Portugal had significant cuts before 2008 and both Portugal and Poland had an overall funding level that was lower compared to other countries.

“Really, there are only two countries – Norway and Sweden – where funding is adequate in relation to the activities of the institutions in those systems. All the others are under pressure.”

Growth pressure

Austria, the Flemish-speaking community of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey are the “growing systems under pressure”, meaning they have experienced faster growth in student numbers compared to funding increases.

Croatia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom are the “systems in danger” as their funding to universities decreased while student numbers grew.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia are the “declining systems under pressure”, meaning the decline in funding was larger than the decrease in student numbers in 2015 compared to 2008.

Estermann warns that comparing trends in overall funding with rises and falls in student numbers is only giving part of the picture, since most systems give universities block grants and you can’t separate what is being assigned to teaching and what is assigned to research within that figure.

But nevertheless it is clear that if you have an increase in student numbers you have to consider whether to shift funds across to pay for more teaching, so the comparison with student figures does provide some useful insight.

“If you don’t have money you only have two options – in the long-term the risk is that either the teaching quality will go down or research activities will be reduced.”

He said some national systems expect institutions to get more funding from European sources for research, such as the Horizon 2020 programme, but the EUA is warning that this is not a viable option because not only are the funds not meant to replace national funds, but the success rate of applications is very low and it tends to be institutions that have better funding that are more successful.

“There is a lot of wasted energy and costs in putting proposals together [that don’t get accepted], so that is a strategy from a system level that does not work,” Estermann said.

The EUA says some proposals may cost €100,000 (US$111,000) to put together, others €10,000, and estimates that the cost of all proposals made so far adds up to the equivalent 30%-50% of the money allocated.

It strongly recommends that institutions take a strategic approach to proposals, really thinking about where their strengths are, whether they have the right support staff in place to advise them on how best to make a proposal for any particular stream.

The EUA’s advice to national policy-makers is to be aware of the costs of failed applications, find and fund ways or expertise to help institutions think strategically, and put pots of money aside to fund some of the top quality proposals that don’t get accepted.

“The role national research funders take in some countries is not just about allocating money, but providing people with strong knowledge of European funding programmes to help participating institutions which don’t have sufficient support staff – unlike the strong players in the funding programmes.”


The EUA is heavily critical of the European Commission for taking €2.2 billion out of the €78 billion Horizon 2020 programme and putting it into the European Fund for Strategic Investments, which was created to get more investment into Europe, both private and public, by setting up a guarantee fund through which the European Investment Bank would provide loans for innovative and high risk projects.

Estermann said taking money from a programme that already is suffering from a low success rate but generates great scientific breakthroughs is the wrong strategy, particularly as most universities cannot take loans themselves or only under certain conditions, but also because basic research is not something that turns immediately into an economic benefit, enabling the loan to be repaid.

“Instead they should say, well, we have a very successful programme and make the case that money is put behind it so they can fund the top proposals that they have got. That is the right strategy from our point of view.”

There is little scope for institutions to compensate for national cuts by tapping European funding for teaching because the European programmes such as Erasmus+ are specifically geared to mobility and co-operation.