Euro crisis triggers HE populism

19 januari 2012 - Allan Päll, Chairman of the European Students’ Union, describes how the Euro crisis has caused a number of European governments to revert to populism. “What is really needed is a European grant scheme that finances full degree students studying abroad,” states Päll.

After two years of dealing with the Euro crisis, it appears that European policymakers are facing yet another year of economic woes. Only  recently, the United Nations "World Economic Situation and Prospects 2012" report estimated growth in the EU to stay around 0.7%. Will this be enough to fend off increasing skepticism of the financial markets that Merkel, Sarkozy and Co. can still avert a Greek default and a collapse of the Euro zone?

European controversy on higher education

Meanwhile, a number of governments are moving towards consolidating their budgets. Especially higher education funds are a popular target. Only recently, Halbe Zijlstra, Dutch Junior Minister for Education, stated that the current inflow of international students creates an unjustified burden on Dutch taxpayers.

According to Zijlstra, every year the Netherlands loses around €90 million due to uncontrolled internationalization. While the Dutch government is actively promoting internationalization, they have run into a situation where most of these international students come from Germany. The Junior Minister therefore calls upon the German government to help financing them by creating a cross-board funding mechanism.

More extreme measures are currently envisioned by the Hungarian government which faces an especially dire budget situation. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to cut 50% of the publicly funded student places. Those students that do get state scholarships would furthermore be obliged to stay 10 years in Hungary after they graduate. Primary target of the higher education cuts are the humanities and social sciences which Orbán believes not to contribute much to the economy.

ScienceGuide talked with Allan Päll, Chairman of the European Students' Union (ESU), about the recent developments in European higher education. According to Päll, the European countries need to create a European funding mechanism to make the mobility of international students more sustainable. He believes that this should primarily come in the form of a multilateral agreement of transfers or grants.

Only recently, Jan Anthonie Bruijn, chairman of the Dutch Advisory Council for Science and Technology, suggested a similar measure. Given the rise of international student mobility, higher education funding should also be dealt with on a European level.


Junior Minister Halbe Zijlstra wants the German government to help funding the costs German students create for Dutch universities. Do you believe this is the right approach?

I believe that over the last couple of years sentiment has changed in the European Union. Governments and people have become more Eurosceptic. Policymakers are convinced that they have to fight for their national interests by protecting their taxpayers. From this perspective, Zijlstra's initiative looks to me like a rather populist move.

At the same time, it is true that more and more students want to get a full degree abroad. I think this is a great development because it adds value to the individual, the host country and Europe as a whole. Still, this has also created imbalances between countries since funding systems are still widely different and most host countries subsidize higher education of international EU students. That is why we have to talk about ways to make international mobility sustainable while avoiding populism. The Dutch/German issue is only one example of this.

Is this a Dutch/German phenomenon or are there other countries facing a similar situation?

Yes, indeed there are others. Austria and Switzerland have voiced concerns similar to those of the Dutch regarding German students. Meanwhile, Belgium is very popular with Dutch students and Scottish universities fear being flooded with international students now that English institutes tripled their fees.

So what can be done about it?

Well, first of all I believe that if the Dutch government is so worried about losing money on international students, they should think about ways of integrating them into their society and economy. Talented international students are valuable assets and able to contribute a lot. With its English taught programs Dutch universities attract a lot of talented students, this is a good thing!

Nevertheless, I believe that these imbalances should also be tackled on a European level. For the moment, bilateral funding treaties between countries could work out. Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have already reached an agreement.

But my forecast is that these international student flows will only grow bigger. With Erasmus, there is a funding mechanism for exchange students. Why don't we create a European scheme or treaty that finances full degree students studying abroad as well? We need this to make the funding of international student mobility more sustainable! And over here, I think intergovernmental efforts are needed rather than giving the initiative to the European Commission alone.

Bringing this discussion on a European level is essential. Right now, it is just a political issue between the Netherlands and Germany. But the real problem of internationalization causing populist sentiment is much more fundamental and affects the European Union as a whole. In a way, I believe that it is good that Zijlstra started this discussion.

The Hungarian government also believes that students can contribute to their economy. That is why Prime Minister Orbán wants to force university graduates that received public scholarships to stay in the country for at least 10 years.

I am happy Orbán acknowledges the value of students, but this is the completely wrong step. It infringes the right of free movement. The solution cannot be to force students to stay in the country and pay taxes. Instead, Hungary should think about ways of making its own country more attractive.

Of course there are disciplines that are expensive to teach. It costs a lot of money to train students to become doctors. Still you cannot restrict them in this way. I believe that this new policy of Orbán is simply nationalistic and anti-European.

Hungary also wants to cut funding specifically for subjects from the humanities and social sciences. How do you think will this impact the country, its economy and society?

I think this policy is foolish. When we talk about the value of education, we cannot only talk about the value for the labor market. Humanities, arts and social sciences are beneficial for the whole society and anyone could benefit from them. They sharpen the individual's point of view, empowering him to be critical about certain developments.

I believe that a university is a place where you can build yourself freely as a person. A place where you develop yourself and dedicate time to the pursuit of truth. This should be valued by the society as how else will we avert another financial crisis if we don't make people think critically enough.

Instead, Orbán wants to exclusively foster STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects…

…which shows again that his policies are short-sighted. We need a more general knowledge base which is not provided for by STEM subjects alone. The shift from manufacturing to the service sector will continue in the future. This also means that the demand for manufacturing and technician skills is limited and they need to be complemented by modern skills oriented on human contacts and communication. That is why it is a wrong statement to say "the government funds only areas where there is a certain economic output".

Given these sweeping changes to higher education, do you believe that Hungarian students will opt for studying abroad instead?

That could happen, yes. Still, the currently rising sentiment of anti-Europeanism might work against that. Also, we have to keep in mind that the general knowledge level of a secondary language is problematic among Hungarian students. Instead of locking his citizens up in his own country, Orbán should tackle these fundamental issues.