Free thinking? States' firm grip on Europe's academy

University autonomy is more spin than substance, EUA analysis finds. Phil Baty reports

December 3, 2009

European universities lack true autonomy from state control, an analysis of governance across 34 countries concludes.

The report by the European University Association (EUA) says that although the European Commission recognises that more autonomy is a "crucial step towards modernising in the 21st century", governments are still exercising too much central control over the academy.

"EUA believes this lack of autonomy is a real threat to the sustainability of Europe's 5,000-plus universities," it said this week.

The study identifies examples where universities are not allowed to own their own buildings, do not have the freedom to hire their own staff and are prevented from investing in the stock market. It warns that short-term political considerations are causing instability.

The report, University Autonomy in Europe, by Thomas Estermann, head of the Governance Unit at the EUA, and Terhi Nokkala, EUA consultant and a research fellow at the University of Surrey, considers four areas: "organisational", including governance structures; "academic", covering aspects such as student selection and course content; "financial", including fundraising; and "staffing", covering issues such as the freedom to recruit and promote staff.

It highlights concerns about "short funding contracts that make planning difficult ... and a lack of independent financial capacity, such as a lack of ownership of university buildings or limitations on ... employment policies".

In the majority of systems, most public funding is allocated by block grant. But in Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkey and some German universities, cash is distributed via "line-item" budgets, which prevent institutions from shifting money between different activities.

Universities have the right to own their buildings in only half the countries surveyed. Even where they do, they are not always free to sell properties without government consent.

While most countries (22) allow institutions to borrow money, less than a third (11) give them permission to invest in stocks and shares.

Only ten countries surveyed, including Hungary, Poland and Romania, give universities complete freedom to set student tuition fees.

Nine countries' fee levels are fixed by the state, including France, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. A further nine have no student fees at all.

Rhetoric and reality

Dr Estermann said: "The report underlines that, where there is broad agreement between stakeholders on the importance of university autonomy, there has been much less success in transforming this from rhetoric into reality, particularly where financial issues are concerned.

"If universities are not free to act in the interests of their students and staff, then the other dimensions of autonomy may as well only exist in theory."

Leadership is constrained in a number of countries, the report adds. University heads have their terms of office determined by law in two thirds of the countries surveyed (24).

In only 12 nations, primarily in northwestern Europe, institutions are free to recruit staff as they see fit. However, in 16 countries they must abide by state regulations with regard to recruitment procedures and staff qualifications.

Eight countries do not allow universities the authority to decide on salary levels for individual staff members, with remuneration fixed by public authorities.

On their relationship with government, "universities made the point that it was challenging to maintain an adequate distance from the short-term interests of politics and business", the report adds.

Jean-Marc Rapp, president of the EUA, said the study was the start of a process to create a Europe-wide database of comparable information on different aspects of university governance and autonomy.

The EUA also plans to publish a "scorecard" to benchmark autonomy. This is likely to evolve into a ranking of nations based on their commitment to university independence, in order to encourage reform.

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