Rebalancing acts attempt to reconcile funding loss

Hannah Fearn outlines the measures employed to cope with budget reductions across EU institutions

January 20, 2011

The impact of the economic crisis on universities across the continent has been highlighted by the European University Association.

In a new report, Impact of the Economic Crisis on European Universities, the association says that government funding cuts and a shift to new sources of income have affected both teaching capacity and research opportunities, but that the former has fared worse.

Direct cuts to teaching budgets have already been implemented in the UK, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary and Belgium, it notes, while the crisis has also led to a growing demand for higher education, putting further pressure on the remaining resources.

"In many countries this has caused reduced spending per student, sometimes even when the universities have not experienced direct cuts to their budgets (as is the case in Cyprus and the Czech Republic)," the study says.

It notes that growing student numbers and reduced spending have led to concern over the ability of institutions to maintain the quality of their courses.

Many governments have imposed a cap on student numbers to manage this; however, others, including the Republic of Ireland, still have plans for expansion.

The EUA says that in several countries there are examples of course closures and institutional mergers - either entire universities, as in Iceland, or faculties, as in Latvia and Denmark. Teaching staff have also been affected, with hiring freezes imposed in Latvia, the Republic of Ireland and Italy, academic redundancies in Hungary and the UK, and salary freezes and reductions in Estonia, Greece and Portugal. Such moves "will have important consequences for their teaching capacities," the report says.

A spokesman for the association said the report shows that the economic crisis continues to affect higher education in several ways.

"As many governments struggle with austerity measures to balance their deficits, the full extent of effects on higher education systems around Europe still remains to be seen."

As well as the threat to teaching, the report also details the dangers posed to research.

It says there have been particularly harsh cuts to research funding in the Netherlands, Spain and Austria, although other countries - including the UK - have protected research funding.

However, the report adds that some of those to have ring-fenced funding have also stipulated that it be targeted on specific economic objectives.

"The move towards more targeted funding has given governments around Europe increasing 'steering power' over universities, which can curtail universities' ability to act autonomously," the association observes.

Many European governments have also introduced competitive funding mechanisms to allocate scarce resources, widening the funding gap between institutions.

In some cases, the report says, this has left universities "unable to pay salaries, as grants had to be won by individual scientists and therefore bypass the central university administration".

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