Hiring freezes and layoffs as inflation hits central Europe

Ministries and rectors in Austria and Slovakia are yet to reach agreements on the extra funding needed to cover surging costs

November 11, 2022
Frankfurt, Germany - April 24, 2022 Euro sign sculpture in a park among modern office towers in Frankfurt
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Record-breaking 10 per cent inflation is squeezing university budgets across the eurozone, with public universities in central Europe already losing staff as a result. 

In Slovakia, the government agreed a €‎17 million (£14.6 million) top-up to 2022 budgets to cover soaring energy costs, but universities are still debating internally whether to also close a month early in mid-November to trim winter fuel bills, a Slovak Rectors’ Conference (SRK) spokeswoman said. 

The SRK wants universities to get a €72 million budget for 2023 “without strings attached”, responding to a government offer of just €27 million, with a cut of 2,000 university jobs – 10 per cent of the total nationally. The SRK said the proposed decimation of staff was “absolutely unacceptable and unrealistic to implement” and that rectors were “prepared for all forms of protest”. 

Radomír Masaryk, vice-rector for external relations at Comenius University Bratislava, told Times Higher Education that the Ministry of Finance’s methodology for arriving at the 2,000 layoffs was “fuzzy”. However, he said the national target might be achieved “naturally”: by retirements and layoffs linked to a recent accreditation round, which closed several programmes. 

Professor Masaryk said increased costs and recent cuts had so far hit arts and humanities staff hardest, with Comenius’ Faculty of Philosophy losing 25 staff to layoffs during the 2021-22 academic year. He said the recent cuts “would’ve hurt even if it wasn’t for all these other developments, but because of them they hurt us much more”.  

In Austria, “crisis talks” between parliament, the ministry and the rectors’ conference (Uniko) ended without an agreement on projected budget shortfalls, which would be driven chiefly by the effect of inflation on staff costs, about two-thirds of the total across the sector. 

“It’s developed from a walking to a galloping inflation and the budget situation of universities still remains very much the same,” said Uniko vice-president and rector of the University of Klagenfurt, Oliver Vitouch, referring to the 2022-24 institutional budgets that were fixed with the ministry in mid-October 2020. 

He said that the national shortfall in university budgets had grown to €1.2 billion, and that a €500 million top-up agreed with the government earlier this year would not even cover the projected shortfall from inflating salaries over 2022-24 – about €509 million. 

In a statement after the talks, Uniko said the government had decided to wait until a national deal on university salaries had been agreed, likely in January, before deciding about the requested extra funding. In the meantime, the University of Vienna has frozen recruitment, including the renewal of temporary researcher contracts.  

“We’re not cutting any positions; we’re simply not replacing people that are retiring, that are leaving, for whatever reason,” said University of Vienna rector Sebastian Schütze. “There will certainly be several hundred positions involved in this, we’re talking about several million euros,” he added, referring to the temporary freeze until February. 

Professor Schütze said layoffs that hit research or teaching capacities were a “red line” he would not cross, also ruling out using institutional reserves to cover inflating personnel costs. 

The University of Innsbruck has no plans to freeze recruitment, but rector Tilmann Märk said he will limit it to the bare necessities. “We will look at each of those positions and whether they are necessary for teaching and research. There are people who are completely necessary, and then there are wishes and nice-to-haves,” he said.

Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, rector of the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), said freezing recruitment would be “drops on a hot stone”, making little difference to the medium-term sustainability of her small university. 

Academic eyes in Austria are now set on the upcoming public sector salary negotiations, which will set pay-rise expectations for the subsequent university staff talks. Vienna’s Professor Schütze said every 1 percentage point increase in salaries would cost his university over €4 million a year. Professor Hanappi-Egger said the same rise would cost WU about €1 million.


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