Europe's Budget Crisis Hits Universities

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

THE HAGUE -- St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Ireland, has been training teachers for more than 135 years, for the past two decades as an autonomous college of Dublin City University. But in September, it received a letter saying that it would become a much more integral part of the university.

Such proposed mergers between teaching colleges and universities are part of a government plan to allow the Irish higher education system to educate more people better with less money.

"There was need for changes anyway, but obviously now working against a background diminished resources, it brings an urgency," said Malcolm Byrne, a representative of the higher education authority.

The Irish changes are part of a larger trend of cost-cutting and reorganization that has drawn student protests across the Continent, as European countries try to balance a largely socialized, affordable higher education system against budget constraints.

Despite heavy rains, several thousand students protested against tuition increases and divestment in higher education Wednesday in London, according to organizers. Students, who are among the first group to feel the brunt of cuts, have taken their frustration to the streets and campuses.

"A lot of students are protesting how the crisis is affecting both government policy and individual students' life," said Taina Moisander, an official of the European Students' Union.

Earlier this month, the president of the Union of Students in Ireland was arrested when he refused to take his seat in the visitors' gallery during a debate about college fees and grant at the Dail, the lower house of the Irish Parliament, The Irish Independent reported.

The London protest took place a day before European leaders arrived in Brussels last Thursday for a summit meeting, where they would try to hash out a seven-year budget.

E.U. representatives also gathered earlier this month for the first meeting to report on the implementation of the Bologna Process, an effort to make education qualifications and standards compatible across national borders.

But university systems vary vastly across the Continent. As funding depends on individual national and state budgets, the crisis has affected each place differently.

Ireland is one of 11 European countries -- along with other hard-hit economies like Greece, Iceland, Italy, Portugal and Spain -- whose higher-education funding has decreased more than 10 percent during the financial crisis, according to a report released by the European University Association.

But, perhaps surprisingly, the report found that nine countries -- notably France, Germany and Switzerland -- had seen overall increases in education funding. Scandinavian nations either had more funds or held steady.

The highest-profile cuts have taken place in Britain, where the tuition fee cap for local and E.U. students rose to £9,000, or $14,350, a year, making British universities the most expensive in Europe and the third most expensive in the world, after those in the United States and South Korea, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the association of free-market democracies.

This month, a group of academics and intellectuals formed the new Council for the Defense of British Universities to oppose these moves.

Higher fees are only one concern. Academics are also worried that funding will be focused on certain types of research, and that less tangible aspects of education -- like good teachers who connect with students -- will no longer be a priority.

"On the teaching side of things, there has simply been a shift on where the money comes from," said Chris Hale of Universities UK, another British advocacy group.

Thomas Estermann, the head of Governance, Autonomy and Funding at the European University Association, said, "Many governments put an increasing pressure on institutions to deliver certain tasks in very efficient ways." The association has been involved in the Public Funding Observatory, which has monitored the economic crisis's effects on higher education since 2008.

Efficiency is a new watchword in Ireland's higher education system, which is 90 percent public. The public system provides education and training to about 160,000 students.

The first step was taken in September, when the government released a list of colleges like Saint Patrick's that would be integrated with universities.

In early 2013, the higher education authority is expected to release "New Education Landscape," a report that will outline how higher education institutions, including Ireland's seven universities, might collaborate or merge.

"There will be fewer institutions: A lot of the smaller institutions will have been merged and institutions will be encouraged to specialize," Mr. Byrne said. "The word in the system is doing more with less."

Ireland is dealing with twin problems: A smaller national budget, and a larger potential student body, as those born during a baby boom in the late '90s are now preparing to go to universities. The government estimates that there will be 250,000 students in the post-secondary system in a decade.

In Britain, funding for teaching has become more dependent on student tuition, as direct government support decreased, causing a chilling effect elsewhere. "If this is what can be done in the U.K., a democracy with one of the top education systems in the world, what will stop governments from doing it elsewhere?" asked Howard Hotson of the Council for the Defense of British Universities.

"In the discussion on who should contribute to the teaching part, tuition fees are usually – and controversially – discussed," Mr. Estermann added.

"Research has been, in many cases, ring-fenced," Mr. Estermann said, explaining that for many European countries, research in certain fields has held priorities over other aspects of higher education.

In Ireland, Britain and Germany, research focused on science and technology would be less likely to lose funding than other fields that are perceived as being less economically viable, experts say.

Germany, which has more than 2.2 million post-secondary students, has one of the eight higher education systems that was found by the report to have actually increased the funding of its higher education system.

While universities obtain most of their funding from Germany's 16 states, research can be funded directly by the federal government.

Under the Excellence Initiative, the federal government funds research projects, graduate schools and a select number of universities based on their research potential.

"Research is well financed, but not much of that money makes it to regular universities," said Matthias Jaroch of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers.

The overall number of students in Germany continues to grow, but funding for teaching is stagnating, according to the report.

In Italy, some of Europe's strictest austerity measures have led to extreme cuts. "We are running the risk of the collapse of the system," said Marco Mancini, president of the Conference of Italian University Rectors and rector of Università della Tuscia.

The 14 percent being cut from the higher education system is especially damaging because of its indiscriminate nature, Dr. Mancini said by telephone. "The cuts are blind in Italy," he said, affecting everything from research to professors' salaries.

While research retains funds in some countries, other countries focus on efficient teaching to create a work force ready for employers.

"There is a general trend to a more employability-driven higher education," said Stefan Delplace, the secretary general of the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education, or Eurashe.

According to Mr. Delplace, high quality teaching has grown in importance as Europe struggles to develop graduates who can fulfill employers' demands.

The Netherlands has more than 650,000 post-secondary students and similar cuts to the higher education budget as Ireland, according to the E.U.A. report. Under a new push to reform the education system, the Dutch government makes additional funding available for universities that demonstrate outstanding academic profiles and efficiency targets.

Because institutions will have to become more accountable, teaching will be more critically judged, especially in the way it helps prepare graduates for jobs, Mr. Delplace explained.

The Irish higher education authority is eager to promote the kind of education and training that leads directly to jobs.

"Even if our graduates can't get a job in Ireland, it is important that we put our graduates in a position that they can get jobs anywhere in the world," Mr. Byrne said.

Joyce Lau contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here