Thomas Estermann from the European University Association examines the university efficiency debate, explaining that behind the push to save money there is actually much more, including a silver lining. This editorial was first published on Times Higher Education on 17 October 2018.
A decade has now passed since the global economic crisis set off a crescendo of discussions about how universities can deliver on their missions in the most efficient way possible. Over the years, higher education institutions have come under serious pressure to increase performance while competition for public funding becomes more fierce.
Meanwhile, university leaders have made an internal push to adapt to cuts in finances, as well as to the changing needs of society and student bodies. This has made efficiency a major focus of higher education and research policies. But what is often seen as pressure to “do more with what you have” has actually had a positive consequence for Europe’s universities.
To see the silver lining, one must first recognise that efficiency in the higher education context is not only about saving money. For universities, it is intricately linked to effectiveness and value for money – meaning it is also about improving quality.
Many universities have had to react to harsh government-imposed measures, such as limits on staff numbers. This has led to a negative way of seeing the efficiency debate in some countries and systems. However, after two years of study on the topic under the EU-funded USTREAM project, the European University Association has found that many universities across Europe have taken a proactive approach to using their resources in the best possible way.
This has improved administrative procedures. It has led to better approaches to learning and teaching in which different universities cooperate in designing programmes together. They share teaching and administrative staff, as well as expertise leading not only to high-quality programmes, but also to fruitful collaboration and exchange.
The same goes for research. Universities have begun sharing research assets and services, such as knowledge transfer or fundraising, in an intelligent way. They are also coordinating and tailoring their research programmes based on institutional strengths and smart specialisation.
Many universities across Europe have implemented strategies on improving efficiency and effectiveness to various degrees. In several countries, they have moved beyond short-term cost-cutting to a more comprehensive approach. This has led to the development of institution-wide efficiency cultures based on engaging multiple players and sometimes large-scale transformational processes for the better.
From these experiences, we know that good conditions and frameworks can support universities’ efforts in becoming more efficient. Governments can create enabling conditions for greater autonomy and better governance. They can also put in place powerful national incentives, such as innovation funds that support institutions in developing new solutions. These are proven and then shared with others, creating benefits that can be multiplied over and over.
A very telling example comes from Ireland, where higher education institutions drastically need further investment to ensure that they offer a valuable education to growing student bodies. Such funding will support successful sector-wide and cross-mission collaboration that is under way to share resources and deliver higher-quality programmes.
In countries such as Ireland or the UK, this has opened the debate on the importance of quality education and research and forced universities to step up their communications on why their missions are so important for Europe’s future. There was a time when such communication was uncommon. Today, however, there is a Europe-wide reflection on what universities do and why they are so valuable to society.
Finally, funding cuts and strong pushes for more efficiency and accountability have also led to another important reflection: how do we steer Europe’s institutions in increasingly complex and unstable environments? Part of the pressure to be more efficient and effective comes from university leadership itself as university leaders have learned to react, sometimes under harsh orders imposed by the government.
When big changes in governance and institutional processes are under way, management plays a very important role in the successful transformation and implementation of new and smarter policies. At EUA we have worked with university leaders over the years on this topic and we have learned that today they are more aware and better suited to face the efficiency challenge. Sector-wide initiatives such as Universities UK’s Efficiency Exchange and EUA’s University Efficiency Hub promote peer learning and good practice sharing, as well as guidance for university leaders and policymakers.
What seemed like a challenge some time ago has created new opportunities for universities to raise the bar on quality through smart collaboration, while underlining their roles in the betterment of society and nurturing a new kind of leader who is well-prepared to face and shape Europe’s future.