Interference stifles Europe’s universities – EUA report

Too many external restrictions are preventing universities from realising their full potential, according to the European University Association’s (EUA’s) latest Autonomy Scorecard, which compares 35 higher education systems across the continent for university autonomy.

While acknowledging growing policy interest and greater recognition of the role of universities beyond the traditional missions of teaching, training and research and innovation, EUA President Michael Murphy warned that this new interest often leads to “excessive and unnecessary” interference “whether through specific governance arrangements, overuse of steering instruments or ad hoc interventions”.

Introducing the fourth edition of University Autonomy in Europe: The Scorecard 2023 published by the EUA on 7 March, Murphy said the new edition looks at the progress and setbacks to university autonomy since 2017 and shows “great diversity of frameworks, regulations and governance implementation processes at universities” across Europe.

Setbacks in financial autonomy

While most of the large systems have remained stable and progress has been achieved in some areas, particularly in regard to the organisational, staffing and academic dimensions, there have been setbacks, particularly in financial autonomy.

Only England (UK) and Latvia scored above 80% and featured in the top cluster for the financial autonomy enjoyed by their universities, according to the report.

Six higher education systems scored 40% or below and fell into the fourth (or lowest) cluster for financial autonomy. These are Serbia, Türkiye, Hesse (Germany), Norway, Greece and Cyprus.

The Autonomy Scorecard points out that “four systems (Cyprus, Greece, Serbia and Türkiye) in this cohort are characterised by line-item budgets, which is the most restrictive public funding modality”.

Writing in the foreword to the latest EUA study, Murphy said: “The results of the current study show that there are still far too many restrictions that prevent universities from realising their full potential: in intensified transnational cooperation models, such as the European University alliances; in developing internationally competitive conditions for academic staff; or in customising campus infrastructure in line with the institution’s strategic direction.”

The report was compiled by Thomas Estermann, the EUA’s director for governance, funding and public policy development, together with his deputy director, Enora Bennetot Pruvot, and policy and project officer, Nino Popkhadze.

Pruvot told University World News that the EUA’s Autonomy Scorecard, which was introduced in a pilot scheme in 2011, helps European higher education systems to benchmark themselves, share good practice and assists the reform process in many European higher education systems.

Progress for Poland

Pruvot said, when comparing the data with the last report published in 2017, only Poland recorded upward movement in three of the four dimensions under review, making progress in organisational autonomy, financial autonomy and staffing autonomy, and remaining ‘stable’ for academic autonomy.

“Poland had a large-scale reform in 2018 and this has improved their performance in terms of university autonomy according to our data,” said Pruvot.

Poland was in the top cluster among the 35 higher education systems under review in the staffing autonomy ranking, in the second (medium-high) cluster for academic autonomy and organisational autonomy, and in the third (medium-low) cluster for financial autonomy.

Estonia and England perform strongly

Estonia performed strongly across the board, topping the rankings for staffing autonomy and academic autonomy and coming fourth for financial autonomy, but dropped to 13th for organisational autonomy.

“The downgrade of Estonia from the high to the medium-high cluster is due to the governance reform, which generated a number of changes. The law now states a maximum term of office for the rector, and the appointment of external board members is now fully controlled by an external authority,” said the report.

The two higher education systems in the United Kingdom under review – England and Scotland – topped the organisational autonomy ranking, each scoring 100%. England came second for financial autonomy; joint third with Ireland, Luxembourg and Scotland for academic autonomy; and joint fourth for staffing autonomy.

Positive and negative movement

“A subset of countries experienced upgrades as well as downgrades in different dimensions,” Pruvot told University World News, with Austria moving up for staffing and academic autonomy, but down in the financial dimension.

Luxembourg and the Netherlands saw negative movement for financial autonomy, but both improved their performance in the organisational and staffing dimensions.

Meanwhile Slovakia’s higher education system improved its position on the scorecard for organisational autonomy but fell back for financial and staffing autonomy.

Three higher education systems were newly included in the latest survey, with Scotland’s unique characteristics warranting a separate analysis from that of England for the first time and the systems in Georgia and Romania also included in the latest review.

Four countries rejoined the scheme after not being included in the 2017 report – Cyprus, Czechia, Greece and Türkiye.

Türkiye’s universities are the most regulated

Türkiye was the only higher education system placed in the fourth (low) cluster for organisational autonomy, with the report saying: “Turkish universities are the most regulated across Europe in the area of organisational autonomy. Heavy restrictions apply to the selection and dismissal of the rector as well as capacity to open academic structures and legal entities.

“Furthermore, Türkiye remains the only system where the selection, appointment and dismissal of the rector rests single-handedly with the country’s president. This exceptional form of influence on university governance further impacts all dimensions of autonomy, beyond what can be reflected in the scoring.”

Türkiye was also in the lowest cluster for financial autonomy together with five other systems, but it was placed in the third (medium-low) cluster for both academic autonomy and staffing autonomy.

Hungary was not included in the Autonomy Scorecard, with the EUA explaining that as it had “developed a governance model that displays a combination of characteristics not found elsewhere in Europe, it is beyond the scope of the Scorecard’s comparative analysis”.

Informing reforms

The last word goes to co-author of the report, Thomas Estermann, who told University World News: “We hope that this update will again be used extensively to support constructive discussions on institutional autonomy as well as inform holistic and coherent reforms of higher education systems across Europe and beyond.

“The sustained success of this EUA flagship publication is not only due to the sector’s intensive involvement and expert participation in its development, but also to its practical application over the years in reform discussions in numerous systems.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at