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EU recovery funds - a window of opportunity for universities

The EU recovery plan offers an immediate chance to invest in education and research as we approach the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis. This article, informed by the latest EUA data on public funding to universities, argues that the impact can be buffered by learning from past mistakes and designing policies that are sustainable beyond the short term.

The higher education sector is at a tipping point of transformation. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated major institutional changes, testing our societies and economies in unprecedented ways.

In the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis, EUA set up its Public Funding Observatory as a benchmarking tool to monitor developments in public funding to universities in Europe. Updated annually, the latest study (published in April 2021) reveals that more than a decade later, some countries still have not closed their investment gap. Nevertheless, in the running up to 2020 - prior to the Covid-19 crisis -, financial trajectories in parts of Europe had started to look upwards again.

Now, this slow recovery process is endangered by the pandemic-related economic crisis. More than ever, it is crucial that national funding authorities and policy makers do not repeat the mistakes made in 2009-2013. The analysis confirms gradual improvement in public funding after this milestone and, therefore, national authorities and university leadership must not lose sight of this progress. Rather, it is time to take advantage of the available resources, namely EU funding opportunities and the platform they provide for European and international academic collaboration.

In seeking to address the impact of an unprecedented crisis, EU policy makers have for the first time supplemented the regular Multiannual Financial Framework with a recovery package meant to lay the foundations for a more sustainable Europe. The package, known as Next Generation EU, presents a unique opportunity for the university sector to join the recovery effort and for member states to bridge the investment gap in higher education and research.

National recovery plans, currently under review by the European Commission, are expected to promote structural reforms and investment in future-oriented fields. Enabling frameworks and enhanced financial resources will strengthen universities’ capacity to deliver high-quality learning and teaching, produce excellent fundamental and applied research and play a vital role in social and economic recovery. At the same time, institutions must explore opportunities presented through the focus on the green and digital transitions, rethinking the balance between physical and virtual environments and practices. The university management capacity will be at the forefront of this process; thus, university leadership must be supported to steer change and develop governance models and processes that sustain major institutional transformation agendas.

It is clear, from the experience of the 2008 crisis, that measures implemented now will have a long-lasting impact on European higher education sector. As EUA already showed, the impact of the pandemic on university funding will be felt differently across systems and, most likely in several waves. Therefore, it is important to design sustainable polices to respond to this challenge beyond the short term.

The university sector must not be side-lined in this conversation. In the course of 2020, several systems made extra resources available for crisis-struck universities. An absolute necessity, this was also the result of effective communication by the sector on how it supported public authorities and society in managing the crisis. With the EU’s large-scale recovery package, via its Recovery and Resilience Facility and the corresponding national plans, the sector has been putting forward concrete proposals on how universities can further contribute to the recovery effort. Investing now in education and research, ahead of years of likely economic constraints, will send the right signal – that European societies show confidence in their youth and their future. Beyond the European recovery investment, coherence and synergies between different funding mechanisms at the European and national levels will be necessary to support universities in their effort and national policy makers should not hesitate in facilitating this process.

The extent and nature of the coronavirus crisis is unparalleled and will have a long-lasting impact on all sectors of the economy and society at large. Supporting solid, long-lasting economic recovery cannot be done at the expense of university public funding.

EUA’s Public Funding Observatory provides a unique international benchmarking tool available to policy makers and sector representatives alike to support the national dialogue on university funding in both the short and long term. It includes a comprehensive report, individual country sheets and an interactive tool.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Enora Bennetot Pruvot

Enora Bennetot Pruvot is Deputy Director Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development at the European University Association

Hristiyana Stoyanova

Hristiyana Stoyanova joined EUA in March 2020 as a Policy and Project Assistant to the Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development Unit.

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