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University autonomy – a key enabler of successful transnational cooperation – under pressure

This article is written by Enora Bennetot Pruvot - Deputy Director for Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development,  EUA.

Autonomy remains a necessity for institutions’ ability to fulfil their core missions. University Autonomy in Europe IV: The Scorecard 2023, published in March this year by the European University Association (EUA), collects, compares, and weights data on university autonomy in 35 higher education systems. The report identifies several notable trends across Europe. These include aspects related to changing governance models, consolidation of the higher education landscape, transnational university collaboration, underfunding challenges, tensions around campus real estate, evolving academic careers and issues related to internationalisation, to name a few.

University autonomy contributes significantly to successful transnational cooperation, no matter the collaboration format or scope, the number and diversity of partners – the European university alliances being one of the most recent additions to a wealth of cooperation models. Diving into the four dimensions covered by the Autonomy Scorecard, one may identify some related limitations at organisational, financial, staffing and academic levels.

Organisational autonomy matters for international cooperation. The capacity of universities to establish or engage with other legal entities is one example.

  • While all higher education systems allow universities to create non-profit entities, restrictions are frequent regarding for-profit entities (e.g. in Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey).
  • In Sweden, universities are not entitled to sign legally binding contracts with any residential or foreign entities without obtaining preliminary parliamentary approval.
  • Slovenian universities also need permission from an external authority to join an alliance.

Financial autonomy can support transnational cooperation. Flexibility in the internal allocation of financial resources is important to implement measures agreed on by the partnership, as project-based funding tends to not suffice.

  • In half of the analysed systems, however, there are still significant restrictions in the internal distribution of public budgets. There are also limitations in borrowing funds, even though investing jointly in infrastructure or equipment may become desirable or necessary, for example, for establishing a European campus as part of an alliance.
  • Consortia engaged in joint study programmes must also address the question of tuition fees (which may or may not be in the hands of universities) from an equity perspective as well as integrate this in their institutional financial strategies.
  • The limited capacity of universities to set the salaries of academic and administrative staff poses a particular challenge in the context of transnational cooperation. The disparity in salary levels across Europe has already been a problem in various European funding programmes, particularly the EU’s framework research programmes. European university alliances have also started exploring existing possibilities for joint staff hirings, which is still problematic in the context of nationally-oriented systems, especially where civil servant status is the norm.

In the context of academic autonomy, the question of programme accreditation and the possibility to decide on the language of instruction, as well as the selection of students in the context of joint programmes, are essential for transnational cooperation. But in all three areas, universities in many systems still face several restrictions. A notable issue for European university alliances is the need, in some cases, to go through accreditation when the composition of the consortium changes, adding to an already significant administrative burden. ‘Fast-track’ options for alliances were explored in this regard, for instance in Hungary, creating a de facto and de jure distinction between European university alliances and other forms of transnational cooperation. The question remains, whether the dynamics created by the European Universities Initiative may lead to significant system-wide changes, as foreseen in the European Strategy for Universities and the Council recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education adopted last April, or whether they will remain the exception.

Overall, the Autonomy Scorecard paints a complex picture of the direct and indirect pressures experienced by universities over the past five years. The analysis has shown that the extent of autonomy is not only determined by the legal framework, but also by a variety of accountability arrangements, steering tools, funding models, and, increasingly informal interventions by public authorities.