European universities fear funding cuts as defence spending hiked

Dutch universities among those fearing multibillion-euro redistribution

May 5, 2022
military fighter jet
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European universities are bracing for a coming squeeze on public funding even as their costs are driven up by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

In the Netherlands, reports of a shortfall of between €10 billion (£8.4 billion) and €15 billion in public finances have led to worries that a long-awaited uplift in research funding will be lost.

Hopes were raised in December 2021 when prime minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government promised a €6.7 billion top-up to the national Growth Fund budget, earmarked for research and innovation.

But the Dutch public broadcaster NOS has reported that the government was set to reroute the top-up to defence in response to the war in Ukraine.

Pieter Duisenberg, president of the national rectors’ conference, Universities of the Netherlands, said the country’s research and development investments lagged behind many other nations and that the top-up had been “a step in the right direction”.

“Scrapping this extra investment would be shooting yourself in the foot, as it will have a negative long-term impact on our prosperity and well-being,” he said.

Universities in the country have long warned of a squeeze on their finances driven by rising student numbers. “There’s a serious problem now, and it’s getting bigger and bigger,” said Henk te Velde, professor of Dutch history at Leiden University.

He said that Mr Rutte’s liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy was unlikely to raise taxes and that while its junior coalition partner, the left-liberal D66 party, had been supportive of higher education, it had failed to secure extra funding in the last coalition.

Professor te Velde said the onus was on the current education minister, Robbert Dijkgraaf, to find the funding: “I would’ve said [that] if he hasn’t got more money for the universities, he will have failed.” 

Universities are now looking ahead anxiously to the coalition’s spring budget statement, expected in early June.

Thomas Estermann, director of governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association (EUA), said governments were “likely” to make higher education cuts in the years ahead.

Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Poland and Sweden all plan to increase defence spending but will be reluctant to raise taxes when inflation is increasing, potentially putting a squeeze on higher education funding, he said.

Mr Estermann said that at a meeting of EUA members last month, 16 national rectors’ groups cited rising costs from energy and inflation as their top concern and that funding fears were rising among EUA members generally, in contrast to a more optimistic outlook a year earlier.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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