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Europe’s universities shiver as UK swings the axe

Shell-shocked university leaders huddle in Palermo to talk shop

The timing could not have been worse.

University leaders had met up in Palermo, Italy to console themselves with war stories from each others’ embattled university sectors. Outside, Sicilian students loudly protested cuts to the Italian education budget. Suddenly, the news from Britain rudely broke up the cosy atmosphere.

The UK finance minister George Osborne had outlined that cuts to higher education budgets could amount to 40 per cent by 2014-15. As analysts mulled the figures in detail, Times Higher Education sources announced that the outcome will be a complete withdrawal of state funding for teaching in many subjects.

According to Thomas Estermann of the European University Association (EUA), the UK announcement was not so much of a shock to some delegates – the cuts had been foreseen. But the announcement gave the 300 delegates a sense of urgency, he reports to the University Post.

»We don’t usually comment on national policies, but we have the general view that education is an investment, rather than a cost,« he says to the University Post, adding that »it is crucial that governments commit to invest in higher education«.

Bad news for Greece, Portugal

As Head of Unit Governance, Autonomy and Funding at the EUA, Thomas Estermann is in a key position to survey the trends based on what the delegates reported.

Last May, in a previous EUA update, the big story was Latvia. The small Baltic state cut its higher education budget by half and then a further 18 per cent hoping to curry favour with the International Monetary Fund IMF and the World Bank. As IMF scours each line-item of the government’s budget, Latvians are still awaiting the final verdict, Estermann reports.

As reported recently on, Greek universities face a particular set of problems as the hard-pressed government attempts to balance its budget. The talk now is that a 30 per cent cut to government spending in higher education is on the way, Estermann reports.

Portugal, like Greece, has had its government debt downgraded by credit agencies. The solution is well-known: less government spending.

»In Portugal, while there have been no direct cuts to government higher education funding since the onset of the financial crisis, we expect that cutbacks to civil servants salaries will have an indirect effect on university budgets,« Thomas Estermann says.

Rich Norway, Bavaria opt to invest

But not all European governments have opted to balance budgets by cutting back on government funding to universities. Some, like Norway which was never hit hard by the crisis, have opted to consider education a necessary investment, or even an economic stimulus, that can help dig a country out the mire.

This is also the strategy of the wealthy German state of Bavaria, which like all of the German states or länder, decides its own education budget. Interestingly, France, which is currently stealing headlines with its pension reforms, has taken this line too.

»Higher education reform was already on the agenda here, and the French government understands the case for investing,« says Estermann.

Government wants to control things

Whether cutting back budgets, or releasing new public money, most governments are attempting to use the crisis for political ends.

And now universities fear that their hard-fought autonomy is being curbed, Thomas Estermann warns.

»Some governments are going back from autonomy to direct steering mechanisms. And the funding has been reduced from block grants to a more targeted funding. This change is having a worrying impact«.

Read about Italian protests against government cuts to higher education budgets here.

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