Public funding for European universities holds up despite Covid

Three countries even received double-digit increases in 2020, but with so much new government debt, some fear cuts could be in store further down the line

April 14, 2021
Source: iStock

Public funding for European universities has so far held up well during the pandemic, with some countries even receiving double-digit percentage budget increases last year, according to early data exploring the impact of the crisis on institutional finances.

Slovakia, Ireland and Romania were all lavished with funding boosts of more than 15 per cent each, and multiple countries reported extra money in 2020 for teaching, research, staff or infrastructure, as states scrambled to deploy innovation and online teaching to tackle the pandemic.

“There are good signs,” said Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association (EUA), which carried out the research. “In 2020 we have some countries that have [made] major investment.”

Steady public funding has meant European universities have so far escaped the big cuts forced on other sectors more reliant on international students grounded by the pandemic. Last year Australian universities, for example, shed more than an estimated 17,000 jobs, with at least four going into the red.

Although the data are not yet in for around half the countries surveyed, universities in Spain, Finland, Croatia, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Norway all received public budget increases of between 1 and 5 per cent in 2020. The Czech budget remained all but unchanged.

Only Sweden and Turkey suffered cuts, both less than 3 per cent, found the EUA’s Public Funding Observatory Report 2020/2021 Part 2, released on 14 April.

University associations across the continent also reported a temporary injection of funds as a result of the crisis. These typically focused on Covid-19 or related health research, explained Mr Estermann, for extra university places to accommodate the newly unemployed or IT infrastructure to bolster online teaching. There were only a handful of emergency cuts.

“You can hope that this is going to continue,” he said of the solid 2020 budgets. “But, of course, you have to be cautious.”

The fear is that as the pandemic recedes by the summer, some governments will start to re-implement austerity policies to unwind the vast debts taken on to deal with the crisis.

Mr Estermann, whose organisation has tracked public university trends funding since 2008, pointed out that after the financial crisis, brutal cuts to spending only hit two or three years afterwards in most countries. “Is this the silence before the storm?” he asked of the current relatively rosy picture.

Whether European governments would match “political rhetoric” about the importance of science during the pandemic with “real investment” was still unclear, he warned.

Despite trumpeting scientific triumphs during the pandemic – such as a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and studies that discovered cheap drugs that help Covid-19 patients – the UK government was until recently contemplating a £1 billion cut to the country’s research budget, a hit that appears for now to have been averted by frantic lobbying.

“That’s a good example, and there will be others,” said Mr Estermann. Research systems might paradoxically be a victim of their own success, he said, with governments concluding: “You’re doing fine, you look like you had enough funding anyway.”

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