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Universities ‘should diversify income’ to cushion virus hit

Image: BATMANV, via Shutterstock

European University Association warns Covid-19 could have lasting impact on university finances

Higher education institutions should look at a broad menu of income options to weather the “financial difficulties” they could face for years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European University Association has recommended.

“Universities should develop detailed and forward-looking governance, income diversification, transformation and change management strategies with due attention to effectiveness, efficiency and value for society,” EUA staff Enora Bennetot Pruvot, Thomas Estermann, Veronika Kupriyanova and Hristiyana Stoyanova said in a report published on 22 October.

Although the effects of the crisis on most European higher education systems that are heavily dependent on public funding has thus far been “relatively moderate” according to Pruvot and colleagues, with some systems receiving financial support from governments, the authors cautioned against complacency in their Public Funding Observatory report.

Future income shortfalls will be exacerbated by the switch to online teaching and learning and changes to physical infrastructure, they said, due to the need for investments in digital technologies, staff training and updates to campuses to accommodate new safety measures. 

Research specifically could take a hit, Provot and colleagues warned, with “a risk” that it will “take place in a more focused, top-down way, putting basic research funding under pressure”.

“The overall impact of the current crisis will be large and long lasting, and universities must prepare for operational and financial difficulties in the coming few years,” they said, repeating a warning from a May EUA report published as the first wave of Covid-19 was subsiding in many EU countries.

Policymakers should help in various ways, including giving universities “sufficient autonomy” to adapt and “streamline their use of resources”, according to Pruvot and colleagues.

The advice came as university leaders took stock of their finances. On 21 October the presidents of the German Rectors’ Conference, Universities Austria and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands published a joint statement calling on governments to invest in higher education.

The EUA said it “strongly backs” the document, which urges policymakers to “act fast” and “significantly” increase funds for flagship EU initiatives including its 2021-27 R&D programme, Horizon Europe, and its Erasmus+ mobility scheme, which funds academic exchange.