I spent part of last week at the European University Association’s Funding Forum in Salzburg. Though it’s getting harder to see how you keep a European-wide conversation going when different countries are heading off in such different directions (small increases in funding in Germany and some Nordic countries, versus cuts of 35-45% in Ukraine and Greece), it was nevertheless a pleasant and productive event.
My job there was to give delegates a bit of a pep talk about European higher education, and why it may see better days soon. Sure, they have very big demographic and fiscal challenges, but these days, who doesn’t?
European universities have two big latent advantages over North American ones. The first is their cost structure. As we’ve seen before, European universities have done well to keep their labour costs relatively low. They also have room to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the teaching function by reducing the number of contact hours per degree. Though the numbers differ a bit from country to country, it seems that German and Austrian students, at least, have about 15% more contact hours on the way to a degree than do North American students. Close that gap, and that’s a lot of labour costs potentially saved.
Can this be done without reducing standards? Well, unlike universities here, European universities actually have some objective standards to uphold, thanks the widespread adoption of learning outcomes statements. As a result, I’d back their universities over ours every day of the week to engineer those kinds of efficiencies in a sensible way.
Public and Private Expenditures on Tertiary Education as a % of GDP, 2009
Then there’s the issue of income. European universities have an enormous untapped asset; namely, students. Even if EU members could close half the tuition revenue gap with non-EU OECD members, they would suddenly have enormous new pots of income which they can use to revitalize themselves. Almost instantly, they could go from having systems that are poor (if efficient), to having systems that are genuinely well-funded. The back half of this decade could be an exciting time in Europe, if governments and institutions have the will to grasp this nettle.
Of course, introducing tuition fees is a delicate thing, especially in countries where high unemployment is reducing the obvious payoff to higher education. Not surprisingly, I spent a lot of time there explaining what was going on in Quebec (most were shocked to find out how generous the Quebec government’s package really was). The lesson seems to be that introducing big changes in fee policy requires careful timing and – more importantly – governments with a lot of popular credibility. We might be waiting a while for that in Europe – and in Quebec, too, for that matter.