Euro crisis triggers HE populism

Nieuws | de redactie
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 thatEuropean policymakers are facing yet another year of economic woes.Only  recently, the United Nations “World Economic Situationand Prospects 2012” report estimated growth in the EU to stayaround 0.7%. Will this be enough to fend off increasing skepticismof the financial markets that Merkel, Sarkozy and Co. can stillavert a Greek default and a collapse of the Euro zone?

European controversy on higher education

Meanwhile, a number of governments are moving towardsconsolidating their budgets. Especially higher education funds area popular target. Only recently, Halbe Zijlstra, Dutch JuniorMinister for Education, stated that the current inflow ofinternational students creates an unjustified burden on Dutchtaxpayers.

According to Zijlstra, every year the Netherlands loses around €90 million due touncontrolled internationalization. While the Dutch government isactively promoting internationalization, they have run into asituation where most of these international students come fromGermany. The Junior Minister therefore calls upon the Germangovernment to help financing them by creating a cross-board fundingmechanism.

More extreme measures are currently envisioned by the Hungarian government which faces an especiallydire budget situation. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to cut 50%of the publicly funded student places. Those students that do getstate scholarships would furthermore be obliged to stay 10 years inHungary after they graduate. Primary target of the higher educationcuts are the humanities and social sciences which Orbán believesnot to contribute much to the economy.

ScienceGuide talked with Allan Päll, Chairman of the EuropeanStudents’ Union (ESU), about the recent developments in Europeanhigher education. According to Päll, the European countries need tocreate a European funding mechanism to make the mobility ofinternational students more sustainable. He believes that thisshould primarily come in the form of a multilateral agreement oftransfers or grants.

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


Junior Minister Halbe Zijlstra wants the German governmentto help funding the costs German students create for Dutchuniversities. Do you believe this is the right approach?

I believe that over the last couple of years sentiment haschanged in the European Union. Governments and people have becomemore Eurosceptic. Policymakers are convinced that they have tofight for their national interests by protecting their taxpayers.From this perspective, Zijlstra’s initiative looks to me like arather populist move.

At the same time, it is true that more and more students want toget a full degree abroad. I think this is a great developmentbecause it adds value to the individual, the host country andEurope as a whole. Still, this has also created imbalances betweencountries since funding systems are still widely differentand most host countries subsidize higher education ofinternational EU students. That is why we have to talk about waysto 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 othercountries facing a similar situation?

Yes, indeed there are others. Austria and Switzerland have voiced concerns similar tothose of the Dutch regarding German students. Meanwhile, Belgium isvery popular with Dutch students and Scottish universities fear being flooded withinternational students now that English institutes tripled theirfees.

So what can be done about it?

Well, first of all I believe that if the Dutch government is soworried about losing money on international students, they shouldthink about ways of integrating them into their society andeconomy. Talented international students are valuable assets andable to contribute a lot. With its English taught programs Dutchuniversities attract a lot of talented students, this is a goodthing!

Nevertheless, I believe that these imbalances should also betackled on a European level. For the moment, bilateral fundingtreaties between countries could work out. Finland, Denmark, Norwayand Sweden have already reached an agreement.

But my forecast is that these international student flows willonly grow bigger. With Erasmus, there is a funding mechanism forexchange students. Why don’t we create a European scheme or treatythat finances full degree students studying abroad as well? We needthis to make the funding of international student mobility moresustainable! And over here, I think intergovernmental effortsare needed rather than giving the initiative to the EuropeanCommission alone.

Bringing this discussion on a European level is essential. Rightnow, it is just a political issue between the Netherlands andGermany. But the real problem of internationalization causingpopulist sentiment is much more fundamental and affects theEuropean Union as a whole. In a way, I believe that it is good thatZijlstra started this discussion.

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

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

Of course there are disciplines that are expensive to teach. Itcosts a lot of money to train students to become doctors. Still youcannot restrict them in this way. I believe that this new policy ofOrbán is simply nationalistic and anti-European.

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

I think this policy is foolish. When we talk about the value ofeducation, we cannot only talk about the value for the labormarket. Humanities, arts and social sciences are beneficial for thewhole society and anyone could benefit from them. They sharpen theindividual’s point of view, empowering him to be critical aboutcertain developments.

I believe that a university is a place where you can buildyourself freely as a person. A place where you develop yourself anddedicate time to the pursuit of truth. This should be valued by thesociety as how else will we avert another financial crisis if wedon’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 needa more general knowledge base which is not provided for by STEMsubjects alone. The shift from manufacturing to the service sectorwill continue in the future. This also means that the demand formanufacturing and technician skills is limited and they need to becomplemented by modern skills oriented on human contacts andcommunication. That is why it is a wrong statement to say “thegovernment funds only areas where there is a certain economicoutput”.

Given these sweeping changes to higher education, do youbelieve that Hungarian students will opt for studying abroadinstead?

That could happen, yes. Still, the currently rising sentiment ofanti-Europeanism might work against that. Also, we have tokeep in mind that the general knowledge level of a secondarylanguage is problematic among Hungarian students. Instead oflocking his citizens up in his own country, Orbán should tacklethese fundamental issues.

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