The states keep Europe steady

January 21, 2005

Times Higher reporters look at pressures on courses in basic subjects worldwide

Closures of core undergraduate programmes are rare in continental Europe. Close links between universities and the state prevent a quick reaction to changing financial conditions.

While Italian universities can, in theory, decide to shut down a core subject or degree course, it has never happened. There is close ministerial surveillance of new courses, however.

Teaching staff are hired on national lifelong contracts. They cannot be sacked and, in most cases, cannot be redeployed to another faculty in the same university. If a university were to shut a course, it would still have to pay salaries while losing the finance for each student.

A ministry official explained: "A degree course may be gradually reduced over the years. Some teachers retire, others take advantage of job openings and no new staff are taken on. But this would be a long process."

"A sudden shutdown has never happened," said Cristiano Violani, a psychology professor and member of the National University Council. "But it could in future. For the first time this year, the ministry is allocating a small part of its funding on the basis of teaching productivity. Next year that percentage will be doubled."

Germany's 16 Länder (regional governments) provide 90 per cent of funding for universities in their area, securing a high level of influence in university management. It would be impossible in Germany to cancel a course for which the regional government has earmarked money.

Axeing a university course in Berlin is a strategic decision made by the Akademischer Senat governing body, said Markus Ficzko, who deals with the introduction of BAs and MAs at Freie Universität Berlin. But it would still need to be rubber-stamped by the Department of Science and Research.

The decision could be taken because a course had too few students to make it viable, funding for it had dried up, the required experts were no longer available, or simply because the subject no longer fitted into the university's published profile.

In Baden-Württemberg, an external working group has been launched by the regional government in Stuttgart to look at the possibility of rationalising service provision. Is it sensible, for example, for universities close to each other to offer the same course? Could departments be merged across two universities?

Several decision-making bodies have also been set up internally at Heidelberg University, in Baden-Württemberg, looking at the same scenario.

The balance of power could be set for change as discussions continue over university autonomy, student tuition fees and business-like management.

There is a shift in France, too, where universities are gaining more freedom to decide their courses. But in the country's state-led public higher education system, programmes are subject to government approval. The curriculum is a component of an agreement negotiated between the state and each university and renewed every four years.

Curriculum proposals are inspected by a state evaluation commission, which advises the education minister. After ministerial authorisation, the university is allocated a budget based on its needs. The programmes are then fixed until the next agreement.

Closures are usually the university's decision with exceptions for "regulated" studies - including medical and other health-related disciplines, some law courses and architecture - which are strictly controlled by the Government.

Russia's rigid national rules leave state, and to an extent private, institutions little room for manoeuvre. Core disciplines, courses and subjects are laid down by the federal authorities. University charters appear to give autonomy, but the system remains one of top-down rule.

"In Russia it is impossible to cancel a fundamental course without reference to the Ministry of Education and Government of the Russian Federation," said Velikhan Mirzekhanov, dean of history at Saratov State University in central Russia. "The ministry is the founder of all state universities. It is impossible to start or cancel a course without reference to higher authority."

Teodor Shanin, the British founder and rector of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, a private postgraduate college, said state and private universities running undergraduate courses were subject to government rules dictating core courses in humanities and science.

"State universities are not free to drop courses such as chemistry or physics. There is talk about privatising universities but keeping a regulated system of what is to be taught in certain courses. Russia has not reached the state where a university may be pressurised to close a course," he said.

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