Higher education ‘in danger’ in seven EU countries

European University Association research flags pressure points across continent

October 27, 2016
Flags of European Union member countries
Source: iStock

The UK, Spain, Ireland and Greece are among the countries whose higher education systems are “in danger” as a result of falling public funding and rising student numbers, according to a new report.

The EUA Public Funding Observatory 2016 looks at higher education funding trends in 30 countries from 2008 to the present day and finds that in some countries, universities are in decline or under pressure.

Thomas Estermann, EUA director of governance, funding and public policy, said: “This data proves that almost all of Europe’s higher education systems are feeling the heat.”

The analysis also reveals “widening funding gaps” between higher education systems in different countries, presenting a “huge challenge to the creation of unified European Higher Education and Research Areas”, he added.

UK universities face danger

The UK is one of seven countries listed by the EUA as “in danger” because public funding is falling at the same time as student numbers are growing. Overall funding for UK higher education is projected to drop by 2 per cent in 2016 compared with 2015, according to the report (a figure that covers research funding UK-wide but teaching funding for England only). Since 2008, funding to universities has dropped almost 27 per cent despite a 4 per cent increase in students, it says.

The teaching grant allocated to the Higher Education Funding Council for England has fallen by almost 70 per cent since 2010-11, with the government switching the burden of funding to student loans by trebling fees to £9,000 in 2012 in England.

By contrast, UK funding for research will be protected in real terms between 2015 and 2020, the government has announced. Recent initiatives such as the new £112 million Global Challenges fund, and the government’s agreement to underwrite any EU-funded projects applied for and approved before Brexit, have also helped boost research funding. Other countries facing similar challenges and flagged as “in danger” by the EUA are Croatia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain and Serbia.

German higher education growing under pressure

Higher education in Germany is growing but is under pressure, says the EUA.

Since 2008, public funding for German universities has increased by more than 30 per cent. Student numbers are also up considerably, with the student body growing by 35 per cent since 2008.

The fact that student numbers have grown at a faster rate than funding puts the system under strain, according to the report.

Universities in Austria, the Flemish-speaking community of Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Turkey are also “growing under pressure”, it adds.

The special case of Portugal

Public funding trends for Portuguese universities are “generally positive”, according to the EUA. It is the only country in southern Europe to see funding increase in line with student numbers.

But the country experienced significant budget cuts prior to 2008, so the share of public funding awarded to higher education as a proportion of GDP was low to start with.

Portugal’s higher education funding is projected to grow by almost 2 per cent between 2015 and 2016. The longer-term picture is just as bright, with funding up almost 5 per cent between 2008 and 2015.

But despite the positive outlook, the EUA points out that funding for universities may not have yet returned to pre-crisis levels. The only other country with a similar funding trend to Portugal is Poland.

Sweden: frontrunner facing new challenges

The EUA describes the higher education system in Sweden as a “frontrunner” of Europe. Public funding for its universities has been growing faster than student numbers.

Sweden increased funding for universities by 20 per cent in real terms between 2008 and 2015. The student body has grown by 3 per cent since 2008-09 and higher education staff numbers have grown broadly in line with this rise.

Although the overall picture is positive, universities are facing some challenges. The annual growth rate for funding is under 1 per cent in 2016, and public funding for infrastructure projects has decreased in the past year. Universities are now expected to take more responsibility for funding such projects from their own budgets, which has prompted some large institutions to collaborate in this area.

Norway is the only other country in Europe that the EUA describes as a “frontrunner”.

Czech universities in decline

The higher education system in the Czech Republic has seen a significant drop in funding in recent years. Since 2008 public funding for universities has fallen by almost 19 per cent, and in the past year alone, funding is projected to have shrunk by 5 per cent, according to the report.

The decline has not hit all areas of the university sector equally. Although teaching funding is down, research funding has seen a small increase. But both student and staff numbers have fallen since 2008-09.

The EUA describes the Czech higher education system as “declining under pressure” because the fall in funding is larger than the drop in student numbers.

Several other countries in Eastern Europe are experiencing similar trends, including Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, as well as Italy, says the report.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Europe’s higher education systems feel the heat

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