Europe’s been reasonably quiet for the last few months as far as higher education is concerned, but there are now a number of interesting stories to watch.
Here’s the lowdown on three of them:
In Hungary, the ruling right wing Fidesz party has announced a wholesale change to the way it would fund higher education. It’s looking to abolish (within the state system at least) a number of courses deemed to be “non-productive” (e.g. communications), and requiring others to become fully tuition-fee funded. Tuition fees have a complicated history in Hungary. Hungary adopted tuition fees in 1996, and applied them in a dual-track fashion (kids with good secondary marks could go for free, others could attend the same courses if they paid a fee). In 2008, a voter-initiated referendum was held on the abolition of tuition fees, which passed by a 4-to-1 margin. But this was never implemented: the party that promoted the referendum – Fidesz – promptly attained power and reneged on the deal (much to the relief of the universities who relied on the fees).
It’s fair to say that since attaining power, Fidesz’s policies towards higher education have been pretty nightmarish. The number of funded places has declined by more than half; an attempt in 2013 to make free places contingent on students signing an agreement to work in Hungary for twice the length of their university course was foiled only by the European Commission (which took a dim view of the attempt to restrict mobility rights). The attempted 2013 reforms drew sustained opposition from students and faculty – a rare event in a country where the governing party has a massive majority. We’ll see how this new policy plays out.
In the Netherlands, there is a simply fascinating student uprising going on against “managerialist” universities. It started when the University of Amsterdam announced that a number of different courses in the humanities would merge into a single liberal arts program. This led to a two-week student sit-in at the Bungehuis (home of the humanities faculty) that ended in a police action, but students resumed the sit-in at a nearby building shortly thereafter.
The students’ critique is not, interestingly enough, about underfunding (the humanities faculty has done rather well in terms of funding recently, despite a small drop in enrolments), but rather about the secretive and “anti-democratic” nature of the modern university and – echoes for Canada here – universities losing money on property deals. It’s struck enough of a chord that the university has put forward a ten-point plan to meet the students’ demands. On the face of it, there are some big steps forward here, though likely not enough to satisfy protesters, who may feel they’re on a roll: copycat protests broke-out last week at the London School of Economics. My guess is that this peters out in a week or two, but it may be the beginning of some valuable discussions about how universities are managed in Europe.
Finally, one consequence of the economic crisis in Russia is that students are not receiving their government bursaries. Basically, what appears to have happened is that cash-strapped universities have raided funds received from government to pay for short-term costs (such as making payroll). This probably isn’t more than a one-week story – eventually bursaries will be sorted out. But it’s indicative of the kinds of problems Russian higher education – indeed, all Russian institutions – are currently experiencing.