The "worsening underfunding" of European universities threatens to relegate them to second-division status, the European Commission has warned.
Without better financial support, Europe's higher education institutions will slip behind global competitors in their capacity to attract and keep the best talent, and to strengthen the excellence of their teaching and research, says a commission statement.
Commission figures reveal that the gap in public and private funding is widening between European institutions and key countries outside Europe, particularly theUS and Japan.
In the past decade, public spending on higher education has not increased in any European Union member state in proportion to student numbers, which have grown across Europe by 3.5 million. Private funding of higher education across Europe stands at 0.2 per cent of European gross domestic product, compared with 0.6 per cent in Japan and 1.2 per cent in the US.
Launching a Europe-wide debate on the issue, education and culture commissioner Viviane Reding said: "We have to maintain excellence in our universities and avoid their being relegated to the second division."
European research commissioner Philippe Busquin added: "If we want to be a leading player in the global knowledge-based society, Europe has to nurture its universities. Universities are centres of research and education and poles of regional economic development at the same time. Investing in our universities is one of the best investments we can make for our future."
The commission plans to collect more information on European higher education funding. Its conclusions will be reviewed in the summer and reported to the summit of European higher education ministers in Berlin in September.
It will ask: "How can adequate public funding of universities be secured, given budgetary constraints and the need to secure democratic access; how can private donations be made more attractive, particularly from the tax and legal point of view; and how can universities be given the necessary flexibility to allow them to take greater advantage of the booming market in services?"
The commission also said it wanted to consider the role of universities in developing a knowledge-based society and economy in Europe, and how to bring about the structural reforms in higher education set out four years ago in the Bologna Declaration.
To join the debate, visit http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/consultations/list_en.html