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20th Jan 2020

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Crisis threatens higher education across Europe, report says

  • The crisis threatens a range of departments and faculties (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

As higher education ministers from 46 European countries are set to meet in Budapest and Vienna to celebrate ten years of post-secondary education harmonisation under the ‘Bologna Process', a European Commission report raises the alarm on the threat to universities and colleges from the economic crisis.

A report presented on Monday by the EU executive warns: "The most prominent impact of the crisis reported by most countries is linked to changes in the higher education budget."

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The document notes that changes in budgetary priorities can be deceptive, that while in the last year in a majority of countries, budgets have seen "positive developments", many are hinting of budgetary decreases in the coming years, and underlines that stakeholders should be "particularly cautious about the number of countries where trends initially appear to be positive."

This is because the countries that report stable or increasing budgets tend to consider that there has been no immediate impact of the economic crisis. The report says it is 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 paper also argues that governments are fibbing a bit when they report that they have maintained education funding, "as the number of enrolled students has increased while the budget has more or less stayed the same, or the budget has decreased while student numbers have remained stable or increased."

Meanwhile, other countries have stretched out their planned spending over a longer time period. In one example in the report, Belgium reported that the investment of an additional €30 million in higher education initially planned over a period of eight years would be extended to a period of 15 years as a result of the economic crisis, "effectively halving the annual sum to be invested."

The report goes as far as to say that the cuts undermine the university and college system.

"If significant funding cuts are continued in some countries, the long-term sustainable development of these higher education systems could come under major stress."

Some countries are experiencing staff cuts as a result of the economic situation.

In Ireland and Latvia, budgetary cuts will reduce the number of people employed by higher education institutions. In Estonia, the crisis has forced authorities to close down study programmes that lack a "critical mass" and also to reduce the workload of some staff in order to improve efficiency. In Latvia, cuts have been even more severe, with a number of higher education institutions, faculties and departments having closed or are about to shut their doors.

The report comes at an awkward time, as ministers in Budapest and Vienna are to celebrate on Wednesday and Thursday ten years of the Bologna Process, the strategy of harmonisation and integration of European post-secondary systems in which institutions move towards a British-style cycle of a three-year Bachelor's degree, a two-year Master's and a research-based doctorate.

Intended to increase mobility of students and pan-European employability, the process has attracted rolling protests across the continent from students and academics in the last few years. They argue that the one-size-fits-all approach is more about servicing the needs of employers than the requirements of education, with curricula becoming more business-oriented and less flexible. Furthermore, they say, the strategy has been accompanied by a process of "creeping privatisation" of the sector.

Students from 38 countries are to hold protests outside the ministerial conference and a "counter-summit", with workshops and discussions about the Bologna Process.

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