The Future of the European University

The annual conference of the European Universities Association (EUA) will take place at Warwick on March 22-23. The conference will be attended by over 300 university heads from all over Europe. It will cover many issues including, no doubt, the vagaries of E.U. financing, the different degrees of university autonomy, and the idiosyncrasies of university rankings (it is worth mentioning that the EUA report on university rankings is by far the best available to date).

But, inevitably, hanging over the proceedings like a cloud, will be the parlous state of higher-education finances in many of the countries of Europe in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The university heads present will, of course, report a diverse experience of cuts and general restructuring. But, all that said, very few national systems have escaped some degree of austerity while some have had to face real and sustained hardship. Few countries are in the position of Latvia, which since 2008 has lost nearly 50 percent of its higher-education budget from government sources, or Bulgaria, where even winter heating bills have been under pressure. Many are in the position of Ireland and have lost 2 percent or 3 percent of their budgets each year. Other countries, like Greece, Italy, and Spain, are waiting to hear the worst with cuts in the order of 20 percent to 30 percent sometimes mooted.

Not all European higher-education systems have been affected. A few countries–most notably Germany, Norway, and Finland–still seem to be investing, although others, like France, which announced grand investment plans, may now be facing difficulties. In a number of countries, cuts in government support have been followed by increases in student tuition fees, which have been followed in turn by student protests, so adding in to the brew. Such a situation produces questions precisely because of its diversity.

I am a keen supporter of Europe and, by extension, the European Union. For all its undoubted faults, it is better to have the EU there than not. It was originally intended as a mechanism of solidarity and it still remains that way, at least in part. But recent pressures have certainly tested the proposition of solidarity. What is clear is that more needs to be done Europe-wide to aid some of the universities that are now affected by cuts, but there are precious few ways of achieving it.

In the meantime, it is not all gloom. There are some bright sparks on the European university horizon, mainly arising out of proposed increases to E.U. science and innovation budgets. There is the undoubted and much to be welcomed success of the European Research Council. There is the succession of KICs (Knowledge and Innovation Communities) arising from the founding of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. There is Horizon 2020 (formerly Framework 8) which proposes a budget of 80 billion euros from 2014 to 2020, and the associated budget for large infrastructure facilities. There is the prospect of the European Research Area finally coming together, with its raft of measures to promote greater scientific integration.

In turn, the changes arising out of Europe-wide expenditure on science and innovation are already becoming apparent. For example, in an increasingly eurosceptic U.K., most British research universities now get at least 10 percent of their research support from E.U. sources. For some the figure is as high as 16 percent. It’s a delicious irony.

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