European higher education faces budget cuts
The global economic crisis has led to budget cuts in the education sector in member states across the European Union at a time when the bloc is seeking to boost its economy by, among other things, putting education at the centre of its new economic strategy.
Spanish education minister Angel Gabilondo, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has called for education to be "at the heart" of the European Union's 2020 Strategy - a 10n-year programme to boost the European economy. The strategy is to replace the Lisbon Agenda, expiring this year, and is due to be signed off by EU leaders in June.
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However, European economies badly hit by the world financial crisis are cutting back on public funds for their education sector or demanding more for the same amount, leading to academic staff lay-offs and a decline in teaching standards.
The academic community across the bloc has responded with a storm of protest and called for meetings to discuss financing for Europe's higher education sector now and beyond the financial crisis.
"The impact of the crisis on higher education has quite clearly led to diverse developments across Europe," Thomas Estermann from the European University Association (EUA) told the EUobserver.
"Some countries are doing okay, some have been affected quite strongly immediately, while others have felt the effects later and are facing budget cuts now," he added.
Latvia has faced severe budget cuts to the country's 34 higher education institutions, with a threatened 50 percent cutback to the planned higher education budget for this year.
A country of 2.2 million people, it is suffering the deepest economic crisis in the European Union, with an estimated 18 percent economic contraction last year - a far cry from its double-digit growth of previous years.
Hungary, Italy, Lithuania and Poland are either having or are facing budget cuts, while in Austria previous promises to increase public funding have been discarded due to the crisis. Irish universities had a reduction of six percent in funding last year with a further 10 percent cutback for this year's budget.
Mr Estermann also explained that even though funds have not been touched in the richer Nordic countries, they have been asked to do more with the same amount of money.
Other member states have decided to meet the crisis with more investment into the higher education sector. France has increased its public funding of universities in relation to previous years while Spain has increased scholarships.
Germany has created economic stimulus packages and the UK has set up a €71 million "Economic Challenge Investment Fund" to enable universities to respond rapidly to the needs of employers and individuals during the crisis.
However, England alone is facing budgets cuts of over €500 million for the 2010/11 academic year, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Some see the financial crisis as a chance for higher education in Europe to increase private funding. "The ...economic crisis ...is an excellent opportunity for a paradigm shift all over Europe to promote excellence together with emancipation of the new Europeans in universities," argues Jo Ritzen in his upcoming book A Chance for European Universities.
He adds that the finance for universities needs to be rebalanced so that the public budget cuts of the past decades can be met by private sources.
However, Mr Estermann warns that public funding should not be replaced with private supply. "Private funding or other funding can never replace public funding," he said, arguing that public funding is essential to guarantee continuity in research and innovation activities across Europe.
He also supports "a quite broad range of funding" for Europe's higher education institutions in order for them to become more autonomous, but stresses that many European countries lack the necessary legal framework to make that happen.
Andreas Schleicher, an education advisor at the OECD, argues European governments could create big economic benefits if they committed themselves more deeply to education-related spending, saying that studies show that investment in education yields strong economic and social benefits.
Student protests across Europe
The cutbacks have led to students protesting against staff lay-offs, declining academic standards, oversubscribed courses and higher university fees. Late last year, students demonstrated and had sit-ins in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, while hundreds of students protested in front of key departments at the University of Copenhagen earlier in February.
The European Students' Union has called for the reforms proposed in the EU 2020 strategy to be linked with radical reforms of the financing of higher education to ensure that higher education is not dependent on fluctuating public funding but have a constant flow of financial resources.
At the same time, the students' organisation warns against going as far as to opening higher education up as a free market through processes such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations and the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), which it argues would restrict access for potential students and move higher education away from being a public responsibility.
2010 a key year
Funding and reform in Europe's higher education institutions are high on the European agenda this year. The European Parliament's education committee is holding a public hearing on "Europe's Universities - Challenges and responses."
French student organisations have invited the European academic community to the Sorbonne University to discuss and propose a European project for higher education in the light of the Bologna Process of the European harmonisation of higher education.
The Spanish EU presidency will in April host a conference in Madrid on the "Internationalisation of Higher Education," while, also in April, the EUA is organising a conference on diversifying funds for Europe's universities.