Scholars explore impact of funding changes in Europe

Book examines the effects of ‘modernisation agenda’ on the Continent’s public universities in a time of austerity

May 8, 2014

Source: Corbis

Sound bets? Scholars are bringing evidence on funding impact to the table

A new book tries to bring academic rigour to the “evidence-free” debates on the funding of European universities. That is the aim of Paola Mattei, a fellow at the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford, whose edited collection University Adaptation in Difficult Economic Times will be published by Oxford University Press next month.

“Much contemporary debate on HE funding in Europe”, she told a discussion at St Antony’s last week, “is conducted at an evidence-free level”, with commentators “very pessimistic about the financial sustainability and future of public universities in Europe”. The book was designed to test “the claims that governments are no longer committed to public higher education”.

There are two main strands of the “modernisation agenda”, Dr Mattei said. One is “strengthening the institutional autonomy of universities”, which led to “internal governance changes and increasing professionalisation of the administration”. In parallel with this went new funding arrangements, although the issue of how to make public funding “effective and legitimate” was as significant as raw figures such as the percentages of gross domestic product invested in higher education.

Contributors to the book went on to explore the links between these two developments. Jan Sadlak, president of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, put the case for “accountable autonomy”, on the grounds that “universities are too important to be left to the self-governance of individual institutions”. Others considered how similar pressures had led to different responses in different countries.

Corine Eyraud, a sociologist at the Université d’Aix-Marseille, looked at the “performance-oriented form of management” introduced in France in 2006, and then extended to “a performance-based financing system” from 2009.

Such initiatives, she argued, could be “an opportunity for large democratic debates” on preferred “outputs and outcomes” from universities, yet in the event “the choices of the performance indicators were made in a completely technocratic way”, through negotiations between the ministry and the Treasury.

Meanwhile, different nations, suggested Peter Maassen, a professor in the department of education at the University of Oslo, gave very different answers to the core question: “Is higher education part of the problem or part of the solution?”

In the Nordic countries, even those that had been badly hit by the economic crisis (and already had high participation rates), investment in higher education was still increasing. The University of Copenhagen alone received more public money than all the public universities in Catalonia put together.

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