Austerity is driving institutions closer together

Mergers and system restructures are increasing across Europe as a result of funding cuts

January 9, 2014

Nearly all higher education systems in Europe are considering or are taking steps towards merging institutions to cope with public spending cuts, a study says.

Several university mergers have recently taken place in Belgium, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Poland and Sweden, but institutions in many more countries are assessing similar moves, according to a report by the European University Association based on responses from national associations of rectors in 22 states, although not from the UK.

Only Turkey, where the number of universities has more than doubled in the past decade, is not contemplating restructuring, says the report, Designing Strategies for Efficient Funding of Higher Education in Europe, published last month.

So far, the most extensive restructuring has occurred in Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Latvia.

In these countries, as well as in Norway and francophone Belgium, public universities have had to absorb smaller public, non-university institutions, primarily to save money through economies of scale.

Other mergers have been driven by a desire to reposition institutions in response to growing international competition, the report says.

Universities responded to “intense pressure” to show that they possessed a “ ‘culture of excellence’ necessary to operate in an increasingly internationally competitive field”, the report says.

In most systems, universities have formed alliances with other institutions to save money or pursue internationalisation, it adds. Such partnerships include university consortia, joint degree programmes and joint research initiatives.

The cost-saving moves follow several years of severe public funding cuts for universities in most European states. In 13 of the 22 countries, the public funds available are lower in real terms than they were in 2008, the report says.

In half the countries, tuition fees make up no more than 5 per cent of university income. Here, funding cuts pose a particular risk. Even in states where tuition fees play a more significant role, universities were vulnerable if authorities chose to abolish fees and not replace them with public funds, the report adds.

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