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NextGenerationEU: making the most of opportunities for universities

What does NextGenerationEU mean for the university sector? Funding expert Enora Bennetot Pruvot outlines investment and reform opportunities, highlighting that the national recovery and resilience plans are a unique chance to generate additional firepower for better financial and regulatory frameworks.

How big a deal is NextGenerationEU for universities? It depends mostly on where the university operates. Most national recovery and resilience plans have been submitted and endorsed by the EU institutions, though the scale and contents of these roadmaps differ greatly. If you happen to be a Dutch university, you might not want to hold your breath, as the government is still not convinced it should put a plan forward. Elsewhere, Bulgaria is still expected to submit its plan (now in its fourth iteration), while the greenlight is pending for a few others (importantly, Hungary and Poland). However, for many EU member states, the European Commission has already made the first payment (13% of the total grant). Amounts vary: the value of the plans ranges from less than €100 million to nearly €70 billion, without considering associated loans.

How much goes to universities? The short answer is that it is very hard to tell because universities may contribute and benefit from various angles, as EUA’s latest briefing shows. They will compete against others for some calls, be considered as part of the broader education sector in other initiatives, and they may indirectly benefit from support targeted to students or to the wider population. All in all, however, the university sector should continue pay attention to the roll-out and implementation of the plans.

The first reason is that there are various investment opportunities, related to university operations – like energy rettrofitting and digitalisation of university infrastructure – or to the university missions, including the provision of lifelong learning and extra resources for research in certain areas. While the amounts vary, investments across countries tend to go in the same direction, guided by the climate and digital objectives of the European Commission. Funds will be channeled in various ways and to different beneficiary groups, making close monitoring necessary, at the sector or even institutional level.

The second reason to pay attenion is that many governments have packed their national plans with a series of reforms of direct relevance to universities, widely spanning from quality assurance to academic careers and R&I regulatory framework updates - along with a general aspiration to “modernise” and “transform” the university sector. These reforms are not exactly new, in many cases, as governments took them off the post-pandemic to-do list. They often reflect recommendations made by various bodies like the World Bank or the European Commission itself. A word cloud taken from these parts of the plans would probably look very similar to these reports. Relevance to labour market, enhanced knowledge flows between academia and industry, performance-based funding, universities of excellence – all of this will sound familiar. There, efficiency in the implementation and impact in the longer run can only be achieved via continued involvement of the stakeholders. In this area, there is still much to improve.

One should also not lose sight of the fact that NextGen money offers time-bound support to otherwise highly structural reforms, that will take years to implement and will commit public authorities and the sector alike for the longer term. Several governments will continue or re-ignite initiatives to reorganise the higher education systems, pursuing either a merger agenda (Latvia, Slovakia) or fostering further differentiation in the system (Greece, Ireland, Lithuania). The strategic development of university funding is at stake in those countries that have included the issue in their plans (Croatia, Latvia or Spain, to name a few).

The national recovery and resilience plans are a golden opportunity to approach funding streams and policies in a more holistic way, and streamline the funding landscape for universities to generate additional firepower. In their plans, member states were asked to outline the mechanisms set out to ensure funding synergies and sustainability beyond the NextGen funding period (up to 2026). Not only will it be necessary to secure sustained follow-up investment from other sources, but it will be equally important to avoid new layers of complexity and duplication, and that will require careful and continued attention from the sector.

“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

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