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Changing face of European higher education

We talk a lot in EUPRIO about the need to face up to rapid change, so how timely is a new report from the European University Association giving us some facts and figures on major trends in European higher education over the past five years. Here NIC MITCHELL takes a look at the key findings.

A YEAR ago at EUPRIO’s Innsbruck conference, we asked: How to communicate in a world dominated by change?

And this year, our Perugia conference proposes to Turn it upside down as we consider what the universities will be like in the future and how will they be run.

Specifically, we will be thinking in terms of our members and fellow practitioners, and thinking about the communication and marketing departments of the future and what skills and expertise the professionals of the future will need.

Changing priorities

euro studentsBut sometimes it is useful to take breath from future-gazing about our specialist field and consider the major trends and changing priorities of universities, not just in our own country, but also those of our European neighbours.

That’s why the wide-ranging new Trends 2015: Learning and Teaching in European Universities report from the European University Association, or EUA, is so important.

It is based on responses from 451 universities from 46 countries and presents a vivid picture of how institutions in different countries have faced up to the economic crisis, changing demographic trends and other major challenges across Europe.

Compared to the last EUA TRENDS 2010 report, which looked at the period 1999 to 2009, the priorities for European universities have changed from implementing the Bologna Process reforms, and related modernisation agendas, to improving quality assurance, developing internationalisation strategies and keeping up with Information and Communication Technologies, or ICT.

Diverse landscape

Compared with the first decade of this century, when, despite turbulence caused by national policy changes, there was broad consensus about things like institutional autonomy, funding and quality assurance, the landscape appears much more diverse across the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, says the report.

bologna_logoToday, with reforms to learning and teaching, such as the Bologna three-cycle degree structure (bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate) and the European Credit Transfer System, or ECTS, largely in place, European university leaders are struggling with the impact of demographic changes and the economic crisis.

National governments are responding in different ways to funding higher education and trying to widen participation to non-traditional students.

Staff less positive

One consequence of the new landscape is that academic and administrative staff can often feel less positive, particularly those with the critical task of implementing a diverse change agenda, says the EUA report.

Greater external and internal accountability and development of managerialism in place of collegial decision-making have added to the pressures on staff, says the report.

Economic crisis

euro crsisThe economic crisis is felt most severely across Eastern and Southern Europe and in France and Ireland, say the universities responding to the EUA survey.

With cuts to staff numbers and salaries being widespread and the balance between core funding and competitive project funding being altered, some countries expect universities to make up shortfalls in public funding with increases from European funded programs like Horizon 2020.

“This is doubtful because budget cuts weaken their capacity to attract competitive funding,” warns the report’s author, EUA senior adviser Andrée Sursock.

Demographic trends

A falling birth rate and ageing population is felt most severely by institutions in Eastern Europe, and in Portugal, where internal migration towards the cities and away from rural regions has seen major metropolitan universities win out at the expense of institutions in peripheral areas.

Smaller institutions are more likely to be harmed by demographic decline and so are private ones, especially in central and eastern Europe.

Report author Andrée Sursock

Report author Andrée Sursock

A recent phenomenon in Poland and other post-communist European countries is the shift from privatisation to de-privatisation, or ‘re-publicisation’. “The private system expansion that started in 1989 in many countries is coming to an end,” said Sursock, pictured right.

Changing student population

Around 67% of TRENDS respondents – mostly public universities – had seen student populations grow over the past five years, with 42% saying this had been by more than 100%, and 39% expected to continue growing.

However, 14% predicted a decrease in student numbers. Those anticipating a decline were mostly in the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Poland.

Other notable changes:

  • Students with disabilities were up in 36% of European universities.
  • Part-time students were up in 31% institutions, but down in 24%.
  • Mature students increased for 29%, while they were down for 12% of those surveyed.
  • More students are seeking professional studies, with this being particularly noticeable in the Russian Federation, Norway, Turkey and France.


‘Globalisation and co-operation with other higher education institutions are rated ‘highly important’ by over half the universities in the EUA survey.

Rankings are growing in importance, with 56% admitting they influence their choice of international partners.

Internationalisation is ‘highly important’ for 69% of respondents, up by 8% on 2010, and is the second most important development after quality assurance. Over 90% of respondents cited student mobility as “the most important factor contributing to the improvement of learning and teaching.”

However, the report warned that international student recruitment has become a frequent strategy to cope with the economic crisis by increasing revenue and diversifying funding sources.

Despite the growing importance of the Asian market, the European Union, or EU, is the most important geographical target for foreign students for 73% of European universities, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe.

European Higher Education Area

While universities in different countries are becoming more varied as they address challenges, no university was negative about the European Higher Education Area.

The biggest value of the EHEA was promoting transparency and comparability between degrees across education sectors, noted by 87% of UK institutions, 83% in Italy and 71% of Irish universities.

Quality assurance was cited as ‘highly important’ by 100% of Lithuanian institutions and by 93% in Portugal.

The role of the European Commission was recognised, with 91% of universities saying they would like to see a European Union strategy to promote internationalisation to university leaderships, national bodies and the wider university community.

Fees diversity

graduation hat with euro moneyA clear sign of growing diversity among European countries is the approach to tuition fees, which are ‘highly important’ to 34% of universities across Europe, and to 100% of those in Ireland and the UK.

In Ireland and Sweden this is linked to the introduction of fees for non-EU students, which other countries have floated with and then dropped in the face of opposition.

In Germany and Austria general tuition fees for domestic and European students have been discontinued while in England they went up to a maximum of £9,000 per year for the first cycle tuition.

The report says one aspect shared by European countries is that budget cuts and funding reforms are likely to curtail the capacity of institutions to chart their own course at a time when it is critical for them to do so.

Clarify ‘excellent teaching’

One of the major challenges for the coming five years is the need to ‘clarify what teaching excellence is all about’, said the report’s author, Andrée Sursock.

Lack of agreement on how to measure teaching quality was one of the major issues highlighted in the report, with only a small number of teaching excellence initiatives underway in Europe.

“If lack of agreement on how to measure teaching quality persists, this will preserve the pre-eminence of research as the determinant of quality in higher education”, said Sursock.

And while ICT is listed as the third major priority by Europe’s universities, and e-learning is seen as most important for increasing flexibility and learning opportunities, less than a third of institutions said they plan to develop MOOCs as part of their international strategies.

* Fore more information and to download the EUA TRENDS 2015 report click here

* Also see Nic Mitchell’s story for University World News Internationalisation ‘could be harmed by global conflicts’ – which looks at international aspects of the EUA TRENDS 2015 report.