EU fears over class of 2050

September 1, 2006

A projected fall in population for a number of European Union countries by 2050 has given rise to widespread concern across the EU about the consequences for higher education.

According to Eurostat, the EU statistical agency, Germany's population of 82.6 million will fall to 74.6 million in 2050 and Italy's will drop from 58.2 million to 52.7 million.

With other countries forecast to experience smaller declines, there will be an excess of higher education places. This raises the question of whether some countries might have to close universities, open them to students from other countries or find alternative uses for them.

In Poland, there were so few passes in this year's matura (school-leaving examination) that Roman Giertych, the Education Minister, proclaimed an "amnesty" that, in effect, let 40,000 less qualified candidates through.

Universities have not been impressed by the initiative. Maria Szewczyk, pro rector for student affairs at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, said: "In spite of the amnesty, applicants with poor matura results would not get into a good university."

Frederic Vincent, European Commission Spokesman on Education, said the problem had not been considered in Brussels.

"I do not think anyone is planning that far ahead." In any case, higher education was a matter for national authorities, he said.

Although the issue did not arise formally in sessions of the European Parliament's Education Committee, there are strong views about what should be done.

Helga Trupel, a German Green Party MEP, said there was a need to send more people to university and "to invest more". The falling population did not mean that countries could save money, she said.

Places unfilled by EU students should be given to students from abroad to help tackle issues such as xenophobia and racism.

Tom Wise, a UK Independence Party MEP, suggested that empty universities should not be closed but "opened up to other courses - training people in skills such as plumbing and bricklaying".

This echoed the view of Jean Lambert of the UK's Green Party that "countries across the EU are looking at ways to link higher education to the world of work and make it increasingly flexible with the help of online learning and vocational courses".

Paul Hofheinz, president of the Lisbon Council, a policy group committed to making Europe "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world", told The Times Higher that the biggest problem facing Europe was the brain drain "and this is why underspending on education is so disastrous".

"Our neglect of education is a very serious matter. At the end of the day, it may mean a smaller school system but a better one. The good news is, it can be done. Look at Finland - it has come from nowhere to be a world leader in 20 years," he said.

An unpublished paper drawn up by the European Commission and EU finance ministers earlier this year suggested that the expected demographic changes could lead to a decline in public expenditure on education in all member states over the next 50 years.

But significant savings were projected for some countries only. The paper added that this result could be altered, and public expenditure on education as a share of gross domestic product could even increase, if potential rises in enrolment rates due to government efforts to raise skill levels were taken into account.

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