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Even as austerity measures bite across Europe, the number of students continues to rise. Karina Ufert, chairwoman of the European Students’ Union, tells Laura Greenhalgh how spending cuts threaten Europe’s future researchers.

The financial crisis has not been kind to students. According to data collected by the European University Association, 11 European countries cut higher education funding by more than 10 per cent between 2008 and 2012. “In countries that have been hit by the wider economic crisis, the first budgets they have been cutting are for education,” says Karina Ufert, chairwoman of a confederation of 47 national unions.

The picture is not uniform across the EU, as countries such as Austria and Germany continue to spend on education. But in southern and eastern Europe it is bleak. “Last year in Hungary, universities were not able to pay their bills, so they had no option but to switch off the heating,” says Ufert.

Yet the number of students entering higher education continues to increase. An ESU report on the financing of higher education, published in January, highlights that in half of the countries participating in the Bologna process to align higher education in Europe, the student population increased by more than 10 per cent between 2003-04 and 2008-09.

“Public pressure and incentives from the labour market continue to encourage young people to go for more education,” says Ufert. She adds that the mismatch between participation and funding must be addressed urgently, before it erodes quality by limiting access and completion.

One solution to the lack of funds, employed by many governments, is to ask students to pay for their education. In Ireland, undergraduate tuition fees were introduced in 2007 and have been increasing steadily, now reaching €2,250 for undergraduates and €10,000 for some postgraduate degrees. England has also made tuition fees central to higher education funding following reforms in 2011, and Ufert says other countries are contemplating a similar approach.

But the ESU remains opposed to student fees. “We don’t see any positive impact that tuition fees can bring,” says Ufert. She argues that fee-paying systems limit equal access to higher education and burden students with significant levels of debt. “What we see now in the UK—where people graduate with a debt of £30,000—that’s quite heavy,” she says.

Instead, the ESU thinks education funding must remain a matter for public policy. “Education is a public responsibility that should be treated as an investment through the taxation system,” says Ufert. The EU could help to increase national investment in education by introducing a benchmark relative to GDP. “In our view, this would send a strong message to the countries to revise their budgets,” she says.

According to Ufert, there have been several attempts by European policymakers to introduce such a target, but it has never been approved by national representatives. “Three years ago, Parliament issued its report on the Youth on the Move initiative in which it proposed allocating 2 per cent of GDP to higher education, but then ministers rejected it.”

This 2 per cent should be the absolute minimum, says Ufert, but only Finland and Denmark are committing this amount. “We can see it is succeeding,” she says. “Their systems are renowned in Europe. The education is high quality and students in other countries want to come and study there, and also to stay.”

A non-binding target would by no means guarantee that countries allocate more money to higher education, especially given the short supply of public funds in countries such as Greece and Spain. “But at least they would feel some pressure to do something about it,” says Ufert. 

The ESU suggests that the EU could provide further incentives by exempting education from public deficit calculations, and making sure countries recognise education and research as the main driving factors in economic prosperity. “When we look at the bailout packages that have been set for some countries, it is sad to see that education falls into the category they suggest should be cut,” says Ufert.

The EU has made some progress on student mobility, says Ufert, with a proposal from the Commission on 25 March that should simplify immigration for students from outside the EU. The improved Erasmus for All student exchange scheme could also bring significant benefits from 2014, she says, although the plan is clouded by funding uncertainties.

Ultimately, the future of higher education in Europe lies in the hands of national governments, Ufert says, meaning the ESU must focus its efforts towards working through individual member states. “We go to national meetings and we try to talk to the local members, just to get the message across,” she says. “European regulations would be helpful, but the biggest work has to be done on a national level.”

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