How is austerity impacting on Europe’s universities?

Post-crash austerity measures have buffeted university funding across Europe in the past six years. Jack Grove looks at how some countries are faring on state funding, according to a recent European University Association report

October 23, 2014


Funding down 35% (England only)
Student numbers up 9% to 1.87 million (up to 2012-13)

Extra income from higher tuition fees has largely offset cuts made since 2012 to the teaching grant, the EUA says. It will mean the teaching grant will represent just 17 per cent of overall higher education funding in 2015-16, down from 64 per cent in 2011.

Universities have also had less central funding for infrastructure, though the research budget has been frozen in cash terms.

According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, overall income for university teaching will rise from £13 billion in 2010-11 to almost £15 billion in 2014-15, including fees from overseas students, student loans and other sources.

Republic of Ireland

Funding down 35%
Student numbers up 19% to 185,000

Huge cuts to all parts of public spending have been made since 2010, when Ireland accepted an €85 billion (£67.5 billion) eurozone bailout to stave off financial ruin.

Higher education was hit hard. Modest increases in annual tuition fees – which rose by €250 a year from 2011 and will reach €3,000 in 2015-16 – have not compensated.

University leaders have warned that cuts are leading to bigger class sizes, potentially harming Ireland’s ability to attract international students. A report on funding reforms is due by the end of 2015.

Per-student funding fell by 16 per cent in 2013-14 alone after teaching funding was cut by 10 per cent and student numbers rose by 1.6 per cent, the Irish Universities’ Association said.


Funding down 15%
Student numbers up 5% to 1.3 million

Between 2008 and 2012 Spain’s football team won two European titles and a World Cup; but it was a different story for its university system. Just one of its institutions features in THE’s World University Rankings top 200. In addition, funding fell by 15 per cent from 2008 to 2014, despite rising investment up to 2011, the EUA says.

That fall in income was partially offset by rises in tuition fees, which vary between €500 and €1,120 a year. Student support has been cut, sparking protests earlier this year.

Austerity has led to restrictions on staff recruitment imposed at national level, while academics have had pay cuts of about 20 per cent.


Funding down 0.6%
Student numbers up 13% to 248,000

The Netherlands has punched above its weight for many years in the university stakes. Eleven of its 13 research universities were inside the top 200 of last year’s THE World University Rankings.

That achievement comes without large amounts of investment over the past six years. Since 2008, funding has stayed relatively stable in real terms.

However, pressures on Dutch higher education are intensifying, with the student population rising by 3.5 per cent in 2013-14 alone, while teaching funds stayed constant, the EUA says.

Dutch universities have also been told they cannot increase tuition fees, which are about €1,900 a year for home/European Union undergraduates.

From 2015, students will receive loans instead of maintenance grants for living costs, freeing up about €1 billion in funds to be reinvested in the sector.


Funding up 23%
Student numbers up 7.6% to 299,000

Funding up 23%
Student numbers up 17% to 236,000

Sweden and Norway have led the way in increasing per-student funding, the EUA says. Both countries also report some of the highest public funding as a share of GDP ratios in Europe, although Sweden’s 1.4 per cent rate in 2013 was lower than in 2009 (1.75 per cent). Norway’s fell from 1.1 per cent to 0.9 per cent over the same period.

While tuition remains free for home and European Union students in both countries, Sweden introduced full-cost fees for international students (about €10,000 a year) in August 2011, causing non-EU intake to fall by nearly 80 per cent to 1,600. It has recovered only slightly since then.

Norway, meanwhile, is due to introduce fees for non-EU students next year.


Funding up 23% (up to 2012-13)
Student numbers up 34% to 2.6 million

Germany’s economy grew in the wake of the post-2008 financial crisis, enabling it to invest heavily in higher education.

Millions of euros were distributed under its Excellence Initiative, which awarded almost €2 billion (£1.6 billion) to a handful of “elite universities”, graduate schools and “excellence clusters” between 2006 and 2011 to improve research. But much of the extra money since 2008 was spent on educating extra students. This was particularly acute in 2011 when the end of national service and school restructuring led to double cohorts entering university.

Despite more funding, students and rectors have complained about overcrowding. Tuition fees of about €1,000 were designed to help, but all federal states have now scrapped them, with Lower Saxony the last to end fees, at the end of 2013-14.


Funding down 46%
Student numbers down 15% to 338,500

Deep cuts to higher education budgets in Hungary led to massive student protests in 2012.

While austerity has played its part in the decision to reduce state-funded places, prime minister Viktor Orbán has also said that he believes the country needs fewer graduates and has concentrated funding in the science and engineering disciplines.

Many more students have chosen to study abroad after new rules stated that graduates must remain in Hungary for twice the length of their studies or pay back their student grants, critics say.

However, Hungary did record a small real-terms increase in funding of just over 1 per cent last year.


Funding down 54%
Student numbers up 11% to 410,000

Recession-hit Greece has cut funding to higher education more than any European Union country since 2008.

However, these cuts exclude staff costs because university staff are civil servants, whose pay has been hit by separate across-the-board cuts to public sector employees.

Nonetheless, university rectors have complained that drastic cuts have caused “chaos” in many of the country’s universities, which are now struggling to function after having laid off hundreds of administrative staff members.

Last month, Theodore Fortsakis, rector of the University of Athens, complained that his institution “cannot perform even the minimum of its duties” because it had “no security guards, no administrative employees, no funds”.

Source: European University Association 2014 Public Funding Observatory.
Notes: Main statistics 2008‑09 to 2013‑14 unless stated. Funding is public investment in higher education in real terms. Student numbers are total enrolments in public universities

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