A new report says that funding cuts are having a damaging impact on university freedoms

Ned Stafford /Hamburg, Germany 

The ongoing economic crisis is leading to university funding cuts in varying degrees across much of Europe, with ’financial matters’ the ’most pressing challenges faced by universities today,’ according to a new report on university autonomy from the European University Association (EUA). 

The 84 page report looked at national autonomy in this area including an ’autonomy scorecard’ ranking countries across four areas: organisation, finance, staffing and academics. The UK scored highly in all categories, ranked first among European nations in organisational autonomy. Other nations that scored highly in several categories included Estonia, the Scandinavian nations, Ireland and Switzerland, while Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and France scored among the lowest in two or more categories. 

"More autonomous institutions typically have greater incentives to strive for excellence and to focus on what they do best" - Adam Tyson, European Commission

Thomas Estermann, report co-author, says that the financial crisis is having a negative effect on university autonomy, which is a key ingredient for quality education and research. ’Public authorities have reduced institutions’ financial autonomy’ says Estermann, head of the EUA’s governance unit for autonomy and funding. ’They have taken for example money from block grants and distributed it through targeted funding mechanisms, whereby they decide what it is spent on.’ Other issues defined by university leaders in the report being exacerbated by the financial crisis include short funding periods as well as the inability to own and sell buildings, to keep budget surpluses, to charge tuition fees and to freely set staff salaries. 

The EUA found recently that Latvian universities had suffered the biggest funding reductions in Europe, a 48 per cent cut in 2009 followed by an 18 per cent cut in 2010. Other nations that have already experienced ’major cuts’ of more than 10 per cent, or will do in the near future, include Greece, Ireland, Italy, Hungary and the UK. At the other end of the spectrum, governments in Germany, Finland, France, Norway, Portugal and Slovenia have upheld their previous funding commitments or even increased funding.

’The economic and financial crisis has clearly created additional pressures on the public funding streams on which higher education institutions depend,’ says Adam Tyson, at the European Commission education and culture directorate. ’But funding is a challenge that pre-dates the financial crisis. The key question is how to fund higher education systems which maintain quality while coping with the much larger student numbers we need for the knowledge economy.’ He notes that since 2000 EU university enrolment is up over 20 per cent. 

He says the EUA autonomy report could be a helpful tool for the European Commission in developing policy for its so-called Europe 2020 growth strategy, in which education plays a key role. 

’The leaders of universities and other higher education institutions need to have the freedom to define their own strategies, building on the specific strengths of their institutions and the needs of the populations they serve,’ Tyson says. ’More autonomous institutions typically have greater incentives to strive for excellence and to focus on what they do best.’ But he adds: ’Autonomy has to be balanced with accountability. Higher education institutions must remain answerable to the elected representatives, taxpayers and students who contribute the lion’s share of their funding.’ 

High levels of university autonomy ultimately can have a positive impact on research, he says, adding: ’Lecturers, researchers and other staff in higher education institutions are generally best placed to decide on where to focus their research efforts and where they have the greatest chances of achieving excellence, so centrally planned curricula or research models are likely to be less flexible and to miss the mark. As competitive models of research funding become the norm, more autonomous institutions are better placed to respond swiftly and to compete effectively for available funding.’