Schools feel cost of crisis

The education sector in Europe has been hard hit by cuts in budgets, personnel and investment. Some universities, e.g. in the UK, might even have to be closed down. And some leading institutions could soon lose their top international rankings.

Published on 30 March 2010 at 14:10
France intends to slash 16,000 jobs in education. A class room at University of Lyon 2. (AFP)

Romania is not the only country in which teachers face layoffs or pay cuts. According to a study by Guntars Catlaks from the International Teachers Union, school systems in a number of European countries have been sorely afflicted by the crisis. While Poland has simply put off investment in educational infrastructure, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Latvia have slashed faculty pay by 30%. The most massive layoffs in Latvia occurred in secondary schools: 6,000 of the country’s 35,000 schoolteachers were made redundant. In Ireland, where the education budget for the current year has taken a 60% plunge, universities will have to lay off teachers and even shut down some departments.

The crisis is taking a toll on education in Italy as well. According to the peninsular press, Berlusconi’s government intends to launch a reform next year axing 133,000 jobs (87,500 thereof in teaching), which will save close to €8 billion in budget appropriations. Up in Great Britain, with universities facing serious deficits, insolvency is the talk of the town in academia: “I think some institutions are liable to go to the wall,” says Anna Fazackerley of the Policy Exchange think tank, author of a study entitled Sink or Swim? Facing up to failing universities. London has announced budget cuts of £450 million (€500 million) for the current year. Austria, Italy, Hungary and Poland, countries that invested massively in their universities, are also slashing funding, according to the

Students and pensioners to fill vacancies

Even the northern nations have felt the pinch. In the Netherlands, fiscal 2010–2011 will see 20% cuts in several sectors, including higher education, according to a study put out in February by John Aubrey Douglass from the University of California, Berkeley. Among other things, student scholarships are to be transformed into a system of bank loans for young people. The proposal sparked protests in February, in which over a thousand students occupied lecture halls in Amsterdam, Nijmegen, Utrecht and Rotterdam.

The only countries resisting the trend so far are France and Germany. But the prospects are not rosy there either. France intends to slash 16,000 jobs in education this year. French education minister Luc Chatel proposes hiring students and retirees to fill the resultant vacancies. France’s pledge to increase university funding will depend on its ability to borrow over the years to come. Germany’s biggest budget items have been student scholarships. Nonetheless, there are long-term plans to boost funding and increase the number of students by 275,000 by the year 2015. But that will also mean higher tuition fees, though the last such increment brought over 80,000 students out into the streets in November 2009.

Wipe Europe off world rankings

The financial arrangements for higher education vary from country to country in Europe. Some charge modest or zero tuition, others offer student bank loans. But one factor remains constant: taxpayers foot nearly the entire bill for education in Europe. Thus far, universities have reacted to the crisis by taking stopgap measures, like postponing investment or putting a freeze on hiring.

"The funding might never return to the level of investment we’ve known up till now,” declared president of University College of London Malcolm Grant. One way out of the dilemma would be to up the number of students from outside the EU, whose tuition fees are not government-regulated. Another solution would be to cut the ties to public finance and charge all the students tuition fees in line with the actual costs of education. But that’s hard to do in many European countries, where private institutions are generally deemed inferior and where the current laws would have to be amended. In any case, the crisis is likely to sweep European universities off the top rungs of the world rankings, warns Dirk Van Damme, head of the education department of the OECD.

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