Many European university systems are still plagued by austerity, with countries across the continent failing to offset funding cuts made during the financial crisis despite economic growth, according to preliminary data from the European University Association.
An analysis of public funding for higher education across Europe by the EUA finds that 10 university systems received less public money in 2017 than they did at the start of the financial crisis in 2008, when taking account of inflation – including Spain, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
The EUA said that a further seven countries, for which it has incomplete data over this period, also faced net declines in funding. Fifteen systems received more money in 2017 than they did in 2008.
While this represents an improvement since last year’s analysis based on 2016 data, which found that 19 higher education systems had not repaired cuts made during the recession, the EUA said it was worrying that “a group of countries has margin for manoeuvre but fails to invest in the sector”. The research analysed funding in 34 higher education systems.
Enora Pruvot, deputy director for governance, funding and public policy development at the EUA and one of the authors of the 2018 Public Funding Observatory research, was set to present the preliminary findings at the EUA Funding Forum in Barcelona on 18 October.
She told Times Higher Education that the “very slow recovery process” means that the funding divide between countries that have sustained investment over the period, such as Germany and Norway, and those that have just begun to reinvest, such as Portugal, is still widening.
“You have economic growth in all countries but you still have suboptimal investment in higher education in many countries in Europe, while there would actually be room for manoeuvre for that,” she said.
“Our key message is that it’s a very slow process and the effort needs to be made now if we want a more cohesive European education and research area. At the speed of the process we currently see, there is no way there will be a proper catch-up from those systems that have now [had] years and years of disinvestment.”
The analysis highlights Ireland and Serbia as two “systems in danger”, in which declining funding levels have coincided with expanding student numbers.
However, Ms Pruvot said that both nations have the economic potential to increase investment in higher education. She added that Ireland is the “most extreme” example of this situation in the study, because it has had “very fast [economic] growth” but has not offset funding cuts due to concerns about “the quality and the sustainability of that growth”.
While Ireland increased higher education spending between 2016 and 2017 for the first time since the crash – a rise of 4.8 per cent – public funding has decreased by about a third since 2008, while student numbers have increased by almost 25 per cent during that time, Ms Pruvot said. During the past decade, the government has also implemented restrictions on staff recruitment and salaries.
Last month, Irish universities sounded an urgent warning that they need more funding to cope with a rise in student numbers.
In Serbia, the “biggest problem concerning higher education funding”, according to Mihajlo Babin, vice-dean of Metropolitan University – FEFA (Faculty of Economics, Finance and Administration) in Belgrade, is that the government uses an old funding model that “has not substantially changed since Communist times” and allocates money to universities based solely on input measures, such as the costs of staff, utility and maintenance.
“It doesn’t include performance indicators. Even if we increased the level of public expenditure [on higher education] it would not be beneficial, because that model is wrong,” he said.
Ms Pruvot also highlighted Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as countries that have room to increase investment in higher education. She said that, in general, systems that are disinvesting in higher education have “neglected infrastructure and facilities”, which will be “a big concern over the medium to long term”.
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said that “public funding of universities is almost everywhere below level” in Europe.
“This shows there is a continuous, annoying, divergence between the daily political rhetoric – universities and their teaching and research are absolutely key – and the daily institutional reality,” he said.
“Investing in the future is investing in research, education and innovation. Unfortunately, politicians always talk the talk but rarely walk the walk.”