Long, cold financial winter lies ahead for Europe's academy

Austerity's icy grip may cause permanent damage to sectors in Spain, Italy and Ireland. Jack Grove writes

February 9, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Che brutto tempo: Italy's €2 trillion debt was the spur to December's sweeping "Save Italy" budget cuts of €30 billion, leaving little hope that the government will make long-overdue investment in higher education

More economic gloom has been forecast for 2012, with the eurozone's debt troubles set to deepen.

So what does the constant drip of bad news items on bailouts, double-dip recessions and austerity cuts mean for higher education in Europe?

The outlook, unsurprisingly, is fairly grim.

Almost all European Union countries have committed to reducing their expenditure on universities, while many research budgets have been slashed as Brussels tightens fiscal restraints on debt-laden countries.

The latest round of public sector cuts in Italy, the Republic of Ireland and Spain, announced in December, illustrates the problems faced by the higher education sectors in the countries hit hardest by austerity measures.

In Spain, the new conservative government led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy outlined the biggest public spending cuts in the country's history - €8.9 billion (£7.4 billion) announced on 30 December, with a total of €16.5 billion to be slashed this year.

While the force of the blow to higher education is not yet known, €485 million will be taken from education overall, and assistance to local authorities - key supporters of universities - will be reduced by just over €1 billion.

These cuts follow a budget reduction of €300 million to higher education in 2011, the Spanish Rectors' Conference says, which has contributed to a 20 per cent budget reduction over the past three years.

"Research has also been deeply affected," says a spokesman for the group, the representative body for Spain's university leaders.

"In 2010 there was a cut of 15 per cent and another cut of 8 per cent was suffered last year. Moreover, one of the measures the government has made public [for 2012] is a reduction of €600 million in this particular area."

He adds: "Universities have been well aware of the problem over the years and have limited common expenditure as much as we have been able to. But we cannot do it any longer. We have been tightening our belts for so long [and] we try to make the most of the means at our disposal, but right now we have so little leeway."

The spokesman says that to work properly, "universities need cashflow, not only to pay the employees, but also to pay the most basic services suppliers".

"That is why the lack of liquidity that the Spanish universities are suffering at this time could damage the system," he adds.

With most academics in Europe effectively civil servants, the public sector pay freeze is another strain on hard-pressed lecturers, with many forced to take a salary cut.

In the Republic of Ireland, lecturers received a 15 per cent pay reduction in 2010 as part of the massive austerity drive undertaken by the country to meet the terms of the International Monetary Fund bailout it received that year.

But the true impact of recent cuts is likely to be fully felt only this year, predicts Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers.

To avoid a corresponding 15 per cent cut in pensions, lecturers will need to retire before 29 February - something many staff are keen to do, he says.

"There is a big incentive to retire before that date," says Jennings. "I think we will see a very significant number of people across the education sector retiring before this deadline.

"Lecturers are already working two to three hours extra each week to cover for staff who have left. If we're struggling now, then we are going to have some major problems with these retirements."

Research will also be hit by the non-renewal of short-term contracts within universities struggling to rein in costs, Jennings claims.

"About 3,500 researchers are funded by external [short-term] contracts. There is evidence of a squeeze on those positions," he explains. "We are dealing with cases each week with people facing redundancy as universities downsize."

'Death by a thousand cuts'

Jennings believes that the current situation, which has had a severe impact on many individuals' workloads, is not sustainable.

"I think something has got to give," he says. "People are doubling up and academics can give lectures to 1,000 people if it comes to that. But we won't be able to correct essays or give feedback to students.

"We are simply being starved to death, rather than having any dramatic blow to knock us out. It's a case of death by a thousand cuts."

Ireland's budget in December featured a 2 per cent reduction in core funding for higher education to secure savings of €23.6 million. Changes to fees and support for postgraduate students and the reduction of maintenance grants will deliver annual savings of €12.6 million.

From autumn 2012, registration fees for students - which some observers have labelled unofficial tuition fees in a country where university study is free for EU students - will increase by €250 to a maximum of €2,250 in a move that could secure savings of a further €18.5 million.

But the increase comes after a €500 hike in 2010, and Jennings says he is firmly against further increases or imitation of England's £9,000 fee model.

"That money would be sucked into the national exchequer or would pay off some of the IMF debt, rather than providing a single job in higher education," he argues.

Meanwhile, Italy's high-profile budget cuts in December offer little hope for higher education investment in the country in 2012.

Mario Monti, the country's recently installed "technocrat" prime minister, is president of Bocconi University in Milan, where he also served as rector from 1999 to 2001. Accordingly, he might be expected to understand the importance of universities and research to the nation.

Yet the country's €2 trillion debt mountain leaves him little room to make overdue investment in the sector. With a 20 per cent fall in higher education funding predicted by 2013 even before December's "Save Italy" budget cuts of €30 billion, most expect more pain to follow.

Nonetheless, the appointment of Francesco Profumo, the former head of the country's national research agency, as minister for education, universities and research has been welcomed by Italian universities.

Profumo, a former head of the Polytechnic University of Turin, is considered an enthusiastic reformer and his arrival could signal changes to the country's ailing higher education system.

Surveying the impact of austerity moves across Europe, Thomas Estermann, head of unit governance, autonomy and funding at the European Universities Association, said there were few good news stories for university systems across the Continent.

Since the EUA's most recent report in June, only Norway, Finland and Germany have maintained their commitments to increasing funding for higher education, he says.

France is also sticking by its ambitious plans to invest up to €30 billion in improving universities and research through its "grand emprunt" (national loan) system, but borrowing billions could be tricky given its own lingering debt problems.

"There have been big changes since June," Estermann explains.

"Countries that were then positive about increasing funding, such as Portugal, are having to cut public spending."

He says that in many countries there are clear economic reasons for increasing the number of students in certain disciplines as they try to rebalance their economies or increase skill levels.

But the problem, he adds, is paying for such expansion.

"In the long term, I think more and more countries will have to think about the issue of [higher] student contributions," Estermann says. "The main questions will be how [possible fees] support the policy of increasing higher education participation [or] whether they stop people from going to university."

He adds: "There will be a lot of uncertainty over the next few years, but the sector needs to [make the case for] the benefits of long-term investment in higher education, especially when other parts of the world are investing heavily."


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