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The global financial crisis has hit spending on higher education in all European countries, though some more than others. The subject has been a major concern of the European University Association, the main voice of the higher education community in Europe with more than 800 members in 46 countries. A top-level conference to be held by the EUA at the University of Bologna next month – Towards Financially Sustainable Universities II: Diversifying income streams – will include a major examination of the effect of the financial crisis on European higher education.

“There is a huge diversity of situations in Europe at the moment but what is common to all is uncertainty and confused change,” says Thomas Estermann, head of unit governance, autonomy and funding at the EUA.

“We have some countries where there’s been a direct impact with immediate public funding cuts such as Latvia. In other countries public funding wasn’t really directly affected at the start of the crisis but it came in later, as in the UK.”

Then there were countries which had pledged to invest massively in higher education at the start, such as Austria and Belgium, but had not really made this a reality.

One country that had invested more throughout the crisis was France. Portugal was also interesting in that it had made “quite a lot of cuts before the crisis but none during it and was now, in various ways and under different headings, restoring the cuts.”

Germany was different because of the role of the Lander or provincial governments so while at the federal level funding may have held up, changes at the Lander level made for a different outcome.

The Nordic countries were generally more relaxed than the others, Estermann says: “But one can see now, among our members a certain fear that this is going to change – we can already see the signs of this in universities being asked to do more with the same amount of money.

“There are fears that after the elections in Sweden, public funding will go down, or at least not keep pace with inflation, and there are changes in the structure of funding coming in with the possible introduction of tuition fees.”

Neither the League of European Research Universities(LERU), an association of top-level research-intensive universities in Europe, nor the Coimbra Group, an association of long-established European multidisciplinary universities of high international standing, had specifically analysed the effect of the financial crisis on their members though both acknowledged it had become a factor over the past year or more.

Inge Knudsen, office director of the Coimbra Group in Brussels, says it is clear difficulties exist in most countries, as various national governments have cut back in different ways.

“Our universities are the big, old ones and they’ve been there before,” Knudsen says.

“Higher education is … always hit and it’s not just direct funding, it’s a problem also of various donations and charities drying up. But the big universities have survived before and they’ll survive again.”

Knudsen says the problem is that “it’s always the soft belly that’s hit most – the humanities, the social sciences, the creative activities – it’s the seed money that dries up.”

“This showed a complete lack of imagination on the part of politicians in all of the countries. They all speak of the `knowledge society’ but how on earth do they think they’ll be able to create this without the humanities?” she asks.

The European Commission acknowledged the wide variation in responses to the financial crisis in a report presented earlier this month to a meeting of European higher education ministers in Budapest and Vienna.

The report, based on data provided by the 46 countries participating in the Bologna process, “shows that the economic crisis has affected higher education in different ways, with some countries investing more and others making radical cutbacks in spending,” Brussels says.

The Bologna decade had seen no improvement in overall higher education funding but initial national responses to the economic crisis have taken radically different paths, the report says.

These have ranged from increased investment in higher education through stimulus packages to severe cuts in expenditure. The likely impact of these different policy approaches on the European Higher Education Area is at this stage difficult to discern, it says.

“The most prominent impact of the crisis reported by most countries is linked to changes in the higher education budget. The economic crisis has also had an impact on enrolment rates, staffing and infrastructure issues, and the continued development of lifelong learning, although the nature of this impact has not been uniform across countries,” the report adds.

Changes in budgetary priorities could be deceptive, it says, in that while in the last year in a majority of countries, budgets have seen “positive developments”, many were hinting at budgetary decreases in the coming years.

Brussels warns of the need for caution “about the number of countries where trends initially appear to be positive”. This was because countries reporting stable or increasing budgets “tend to consider there has been no immediate impact of the economic crisis”.

It was more realistic to expect a “readjustment of public funding priorities [to] continue as demands for expenditure in education will have to compete with other areas of big public spending, such as age-related public health and climate change”.

The report concluded the cuts undermine the university and college system and warned that “if significant funding cuts are continued in some countries, the long-term sustainable development of these higher education systems could come under major stress”.

It agrees that through their responses to the crisis, governments have in general demonstrated they are aware of the social importance of higher education and have neither reduced student support nor scaled back enrolments. But understanding the impact of economic changes on higher education requires more systematic monitoring.

Dennis Abbott, a spokesman for education at the European Commission, says assessment is made difficult by the fact that “people have been putting off and putting off”. Tables showing changes in public financing for education in the EU member countries “represent a snapshot at a certain time and things can change quite a bit”.

Some countries that had been spending less started spending more and those spending more had begun a freeze in investment, Abbott says. (University World News)