Universities under pressure: the 2023 EUA autonomy scorecard

Universities under pressure: the 2023 EUA autonomy scorecard

Autonomy remains a necessary condition to enhance higher education institutions’ ability to fulfil their core missions. To support an evidence-based dialogue on autonomy, the European University Association’s freshly updated Autonomy Scorecard analyses the regulatory framework applied to public universities across four dimensions of autonomy: organisational, financial, staffing and academic.

Published by EUA in March of this year, 'University Autonomy in Europe IV: The Scorecard 2023' collects, compares and weights data on university autonomy in 35 higher education systems. It allows concrete benchmarking of national regulatory frameworks concerning university autonomy, as well as the exchange of good practices.

Since 2011, previous editions of the Autonomy Scorecard have been extensively used throughout Europe by the university sector as well as policymakers, in the context of national policy debates and reforms. The wealth of data it offers has been instrumental in providing an overview of the state of university autonomy in Europe and has allowed systems to benchmark themselves in this context.


This year’s Scorecard revealed a number of trends regarding university autonomy across Europe, including:

  • Several systems have undergone large-scale, substantial governance-related reforms. There are fewer unitary governance models, while systems featuring dual governance structures remain the majority across Europe.
  • The emergence of European University alliances has generated system-wide discussions. While many systems are discussing changes to their legal frameworks to give universities more autonomy and further enable transnational collaboration, only a few countries have already implemented changes.
  • A frequent narrative promoting efficiency in decision-making and a stronger connection to societal and economic interest has led to the establishment or empowerment of board-type bodies and more frequent involvement of external members.
  • Increased pressure on financial autonomy comes from different angles: the increased use of earmarked or targeted funding for universities combined with eroding core public funding, insufficient public investment in infrastructure, and the lack of coverage of indirect costs in competitive funding.
  • Underfunding leaves universities ill-prepared and vulnerable to shocks and larger-scale crises, without opportunities to build capacities and structures to reap benefits associated to autonomy.
  • Ownership of real estate has become particularly important in the context of the green transition and rising energy costs. When universities are in charge of regular maintenance but may not own or sell buildings, they have fewer options to invest in sustainable, energy-efficient campuses.
  • In many countries, universities still have to cope with rigid recruitment provisions. To be competitive and deliver on multiple expectations, universities require greater flexibility in recruitment.
  • Overall, the Scorecard records various instances of greater flexibility on staffing matters, but no extensive change in the prevailing models.
  • There are increasing restrictions on the capacity of universities to offer instruction in foreign languages. This illustrates ongoing tensions in the field of internationalisation.

The bigger picture

Based on the observed trends and a broader analysis of developments in the sector as a whole, several ‘big-picture’ takeaways emerge from the 2023 Scorecard.

  • Excessively restricting regulatory frameworks become all the more unjustifiable when they prevent universities from tackling structural issues and pooling resources. They also generally fail to support more strategic planning.
  • The increasingly tense geopolitical context has led to greater scrutiny of universities and their international partnerships, from the perspective of knowledge security.
  • There is a growing tendency of steering through the funding model. Performance contracts are an illustration of this. While these instruments allow, in theory, for more individualisation, and thus tailored approaches, the practice reflects an excessive degree of micro-management.
  • Over the past five years, there have been numerous cases of ad hoc interventions by the state outside of its traditional regulatory role.
  • COVID-19 had a negative impact on institutional autonomy. In many cases where lockdowns were enforced, public authorities took direct action such as limiting or stopping on-campus teaching and research activities, leaving university leadership to implement state decisions.
  • Autonomy goes hand-in-hand with sound accountability frameworks. The notion of accountability is evolving and becoming increasingly complex, and as such, so is the interplay with institutional autonomy.
  • To reap the benefits of greater autonomy, universities must be supported to develop the right sets of skills, whether strategic, transversal or technical, to best exploit autonomy. Autonomous universities require strong leadership.
  • Sustainable funding, flexible governance and sufficient autonomy help unlock efficiency in university operations and support them in delivering impact.

A focus on internationalisation

There are increasing restrictions on the capacity of universities to offer instruction in foreign languages. Public authorities may require that a given programme is delivered in the national language before opening it up for an international audience. Certain countries that have a successful history of internationalisation, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have recently set new limits. Such measures may include caps on English-taught degree programmes or increasing scrutiny over universities’ international partnerships in response to concerns regarding foreign interference. Often, it remains difficult for universities to attract academics from abroad. This shows that higher education policies on internationalisation and the corresponding incentives can have a strong steering effect with unintended consequences.

Analysing regulatory frameworks from the perspective of transnational collaboration therefore reveals growing tensions between incentives and a discourse pushing for greater international collaboration and competitiveness on the one hand, and newly placed restrictions on the other. Policymakers must be reminded that university autonomy contributes significantly to successful transnational cooperation, no matter the collaboration format or scope, the number or the diversity of partners – the European University alliances being one of the most recent additions to a wealth of cooperation models.

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Enora Bennetot Pruvot
European University Association, BelgiumEnora is the Deputy Director of Governance, Funding & Public Policy Development at European University Association.