No uniform university autonomy trends, scorecard finds

Four higher education systems have emerged at the very top of the latest European University Association autonomy scorecard. Finland scored 90% or higher across three of four autonomy dimensions, followed by England, Estonia and Luxembourg in two dimensions.

England is the only system in the ‘high group’ of countries – those scoring 81% to 100% – across all dimensions, and it was number one with 100% for organisational autonomy.

Estonia tops the scorecard for both staffing and academic autonomy, and Luxembourg is number one for financial autonomy. But Luxembourg – which is unusual in having only one public university – is also at the bottom for organisational autonomy.

Other systems that score 90% or above across one of the four dimensions are Denmark, the French-speaking community in Belgium, Latvia, Sweden and Switzerland.

It has been 10 years since the European University Association or EUA started to collect data on university autonomy, to lay the basis for a Europe-wide comparable database on the four key aspects of autonomy – organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy.

University Autonomy in Europe III – The Scorecard 2017 was published on 2 June, authored by Enora Bennetot Pruvot, programme manager at the EUA, and Thomas Estermann, EUA director of governance, funding and public policy development.

The scorecard analyses and compares autonomy across 29 countries and, writes EUA President Rolf Tarrach in the foreword, it offers more qualitative information than before, allowing description of developments that cannot be measured or scored.

“The analysis reveals that there is no uniform trend towards university autonomy in Europe. The present update uncovers the diversity of settings in which universities evolve,” he says, and EUA monitoring shows that the topic continues to be heavily debated across Europe.

“In a tense international political environment, promoting university autonomy as a core principle continues to be highly relevant and important, as attempts to limit or undermine it can take many forms. Therefore, the EUA Autonomy Scorecard seeks to support a structured, fact-based dialogue, in partnership with the sector and public authorities.”


The first University Autonomy in Europe I study in 2009 compared 34 European countries. The EUA Autonomy Scorecard, launched in 2011, developed a methodology to measure and compare data on autonomy and developed a core set of over 30 indicators.

“EUA’s work has been essential in moving the debate on university autonomy from a basic discussion on the need for more autonomy in exchange for more accountability, to a more in-depth structured and fruitful exchange that allows benchmarking and setting of concrete reform procedures on a more objective footing,” writes Tarrach.

The new update’s data collection was based on questionnaires and interviews, as well as several rounds of validation with national rectors’ conferences, which also provided data on their higher education systems and public universities.

It is comprised of three main parts – country profiles, the comparative report with an updated overview of university autonomy and challenges, and an updated University Autonomy Online Tool that provides detailed information in a user-friendly way.

Four countries could not provide new data, and are therefore not in the update – Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece and Turkey – while the scorecard now includes four additional systems: the French-speaking community of Belgium, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia.

The scorecard refers to higher education systems rather than countries, as five of the systems considered are sub-national – Flanders and the French-speaking community of Belgium, and Brandenburg, Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany.

The Autonomy Scorecard

Within each of the four areas of autonomy, universities are grouped in four clusters – a high group of countries scoring between 100% and 81%; a medium-high group scoring between 80% and 61%; a medium-low group scoring between 60% and 41%; and a low group scoring between 40% and 0%.

Organisational autonomy

With regard to organisational autonomy, the scorecard focuses on: the capacity of a university to define its leadership model, the composition and structure of its governance, internal academic structures and the possibility to create legal entities.

“As in 2010, the UK leads in the area of organisational autonomy: its higher education system scores 100% on all indicators, meaning that it can decide without state interference on all aspects encompassed by this autonomy area,” the report says.

Denmark (94%), Finland (93%) and Estonia (88%) also remain in the top cluster of highly autonomous systems, joined by the French-speaking community of Belgium (90%), and Lithuania (88%), which moved up from the medium-high cluster following 2016.

The second, medium-high cluster grew to include 13 systems, while the medium-low group consists of nine systems that face “heavy regulatory constraints in all areas of institutional autonomy”.

Only Luxembourg features in the bottom, low cluster. “Luxembourg remains a specific case, being a system centred on a sole university. This explains the comparatively high degree of involvement of the government in governance and organisational matters, while the university benefits from high autonomy in all other dimensions.”

Financial autonomy

Financial autonomy is ascertained through: length and type of public funding, capacity to keep surplus, capacity to borrow money, ability to own buildings, ability to charge tuition fees for national or European Union students, and the ability to charge tuition fees for non-EU students.

In the area of financial autonomy, the top cluster features three countries – Luxembourg (91%), Latvia (90%) and England (89%) – with Latvia moving up from the medium-high cluster following legal changes implemented in 2011-12 that lifted restrictions.

While England appears stable, the report warns, “it should not hide very significant changes in financial terms”, with a major decrease of almost 70% in public grant funding for teaching from 2011 as tuition fee ceilings increased for undergraduate students.

“Estonia on the other hand no longer features in the top cluster, following the abolition of tuition fees for full-time students in 2013.”

The medium-high cluster includes 11 systems, while the medium-low group consists of 13 systems, including four that are new to the scorecard – the French-speaking community of Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia.

The fourth, low cluster comprises Hungary (39%) and Hesse in Germany (35%). Hungary “records the most dramatic fall in this dimension of autonomy (and the greatest negative difference in points among changes in all autonomy dimensions)”.

“Public funding to universities declined in as many as 13 systems in Europe between 2008 and 2015,” the report says. “On top of the cuts, seven systems experienced an increase in student numbers over the same period of time, and the decline in funding was almost always faster than the decline in the student body.”

Staffing autonomy

Staffing autonomy is based on the: ability to decide on recruitment procedures, salaries, dismissals and promotions of senior academic and senior administrative staff.

In this dimension, the report notes, “the largest number of higher education systems falls in the top cluster, with 10 scoring above 80%”.

As in 2010, Estonia achieved a 100% score, indicating that universities can freely decide on all aspects of staffing, including recruitment, dismissal and promotion as well as staff salaries.

Estonia is followed by Sweden (97%), the UK (96%), Switzerland (95%), Luxembourg (94%), Finland (92%), Latvia (89%), Denmark (86%), Poland (84%) and Lithuania (83%).

All systems were also in the top cluster in 2010 except for Poland, whose slightly higher score is thanks to salary bands and the upper limit on salaries being removed, giving universities greater autonomy in this area. Luxembourg and Sweden also improved their scores.

The medium-high cluster includes nine systems, which all were previously there. “However, Hungary and Ireland no longer appear in this cluster, moving downwards to the medium-low cluster”, which also consists of nine systems, with significant adjustments since 2010.

“Scoring below 41%, Croatia is the only country where staffing autonomy is low. Strict ministerial control over civil servant staff means universities have no option to decide on salaries and careers, and little scope for strategic recruitment policies,” the report says.

Downward developments in some countries in staffing matters can be related to significant links between the different dimensions of autonomy, with Ireland a telling example: acute financial constraints in the wider setting have led to tighter regulations in the staffing area which, importantly, have persisted over time. In Hungary, changes in governance have led to lower autonomy scores in financial and staffing matters.

Academic autonomy

Academic autonomy concentrates on the: capacity to decide on overall student numbers, the ability to select students, the ability to introduce or terminate programmes, the ability to choose the language of instruction, the capacity to select a quality assurance mechanism and providers, and the ability to design the content of degree programmes.

There are nine systems in the top cluster. “Estonia leads with a score of 98%, only hampered by the fact that academic fields in Estonian universities are pre-determined.”

Also in the top cluster are Finland (90%), Ireland, Luxembourg and England (all on 89%), Germany’s Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia on 88%, Brandenburg (87%) and Norway (83%). England’s score rose after the lifting of student number controls in 2015-16.

Iceland, previously among the most autonomous systems, is demoted to the medium-high cluster, which it shares with another five systems. The third, medium-low cluster is the largest with 11 systems including three out of four new systems – Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia.

There are three systems in the low group – France and Belgium’s Flanders and French- speaking community. “The three systems face heavy restrictions in nearly all areas of academic autonomy, but remain free to develop their academic programmes."


The report identifies several types of developments:
  • • A minority of systems have implemented changes in more than one dimension.
  • • Systems that feature rather high in some dimensions have prioritised ‘weaker’ areas.
  • • The priority given to one or the other dimension of autonomy also depends on a series of contextual elements, including the financial situation and characteristics of the system.
  • • Larger centralised systems face particular challenges when seeking to design and implement reforms enhancing university autonomy.
  • • A challenging economic context negatively impacts on university autonomy.
  • • However, the approach towards university autonomy in systems with substantial underfunding may be different, with authorities granting universities notably more autonomy in financial matters, giving them freedom to pursue other funding streams.
  • • Steering by the state is increasingly expressed through funding modalities (more frequent use of performance-based funding, multiannual contracts) or via accountability requirements.
The report urges a holistic approach to university autonomy. “The objective should remain to meaningfully enhance institutions’ ability to build strategic profiles – through the development of their academic offer, supported by proper financial management capacity, adequate human resource strategies and a reflection on the governance model.”

Successful reform implementation, it stresses, requires adequate resources, so universities can mobilise new expertise to respond to challenges that come with enhanced autonomy.

Transfers of responsibilities in all fields, including for example student selection or tuition fee setting, must be engineered so that universities have the time and resources to fulfil these new tasks in the most appropriate way and to the benefit of their core missions.

“Crucially, the updated Autonomy Scorecard exposes the fact that there is no natural trend towards increased autonomy for universities across Europe. Instead, it uncovers part of the complexity of this issue, rooted in the characteristics and structure of each higher education system and linked to other framing aspects such as the availability of resources.

“Increased autonomy only results from continued commitment and an active dialogue between the sector and public authorities.”