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News vom 30.07.2007

European higher education institutions lack autonomy

In the mid-90s, nearly all European countries initiated reforms to improve higher education steering. One of the main objectives was to strengthen the autonomy of HEIs. However, while this demand is top of the higher education policy agenda, implementation has so far been rather hesitant and implementation heterogenous.

The overall impression is that HEIs indeed enjoy increasing freedom in terms for financial and personnel management, but in several countries the reforms resulted in even stronger and more detailed governmental steering rather than greater independence from ministerial provisions. This is one of the findings of an international comparative study carried out by a consortium of the higher education research institutes CHE – Centre for Higher Education, CHEPS (Netherlands), NIFU-STEP (Norway) and the European Centre for Strategic Management of Universities ESMU (Belgium).

On behalf of the European Commission, the research team examined 32 European countries in terms of how governmental and intra-institutional steering has changed between 1995 and 2005. A clear trend emerges in all these countries, characterised by more competition, restructuring of HEIs to become division-of-labour organisations with strong top management, governmental focus on strategic steering hand in hand with increasing operational freedom of HEIs, conversion to a performance-based distribution of funds and an increasing importance of quality assurance as steering mechanism. There are many difficulties, however, in particular with respect to the level of governmental deregulation called for.

For example, the strategies and structures of HEIs continue to be under considerable state influence. The governments of many countries still want to determine the orientation and strategic objectives of their HEIs as well as intra-institutional management and decision-making structures. Across Europe, many countries have made considerable efforts in the area of quality assurance of teaching and learning. Many European countries have established national quality assurance and accreditation agencies, which are now responsible for checking their HEIs’ internal quality management systems. These agencies are often not independent but governmental institutions. Almost everywhere, HEIs are themselves responsible for the quality of their degree programmes and accordingly have sufficient decision-making freedom concerning the structuring and content of their degree programmes. Handling of access to higher education turns out to be quite heterogeneous. In many countries, HEIs cannot select their students themselves. Tuition fees are common in most of the 32 countries examined and are a substantial source of income for HEIs.

The study has been published on the European Commission homepage under the title “The extent and impact of higher education curriculum reform across Europe”. Under this link, a comparative study by the same research team on the reform of study programmes in 32 European countries is also available.


Further Information can be found in the publications stated below.

Publications in relation to this news
  • File, Jon; Affeld, Christoph; Nickel, Sigrun; Stensaker, Bjørn; Ziegele, Frank: Summaries of the Quick Scan Surveys on governance reform in 32 European countries, Part Two of The extent and impact of higher education governance reform across Europe, in: CHEPS (Hrsg.): Final report to the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission, Enschede
  • File, Jon; de Boer, Harry; Larsen, Ingvild Marheim; Nickel, Sigrun; Stensaker, Bjørn: Five case studies on governance reform, Part Three of The extent and impact of higher education governance reform across Europe, in: CHEPS (Hrsg.): Final report to the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission, Enschede

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