In the village where I was born and raised, Stezzano, my neighbor had a dog, Zorro, who used to entertain himself chasing his own tail. I read somewhere that this is a natural behavior among puppies whereas it is not normal for adult dogs. When I went to Italy in December, I sadly discovered that Zorro had died from the disease that this behaviour was announcing.

In December 2012, in the EU-27 the youth unemployment rate was 23.4 % (Eurostat). Considering 32 European countries -EU27 plus Croatia, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey- the majority reduced public funding in higher education since 2008. Seventeen European Governments have reduced their public budgets for higher education, thirteen restricted financial aid programs for students, and five have restricted university governance autonomy. I believe that the correlation between these two statements goes beyond intuition: it is a causal link that goes in both directions.

If tracing a link from youth unemployment to low public spending for higher education, the logic suggests that unemployment entails economic crisis, which requires reduction of public spending, leading to cuts in education. As for the inverse link, intuitively again, funding cuts negatively affect higher education quality, which broadens the mismatch between graduates and labor markets. This produces a decrease in innovation and growth, therefore creating more unemployment. Non-enlightened policy-makers and “short-term” economists too often justify the first causal link with the inevitability of a cut in spending, and fail to see the correlation of the second causality. Therefore, this double-directed interconnection proves itself to be a vicious circle which reminds me of my neighbor’s dog, Zorro, chasing his own tail.


Picture Given For Use By Empower European Universities

In times of crisis, I recognize that the intuitive logic itself can’t be sufficient to overcome the appropriate austerity concerns; for that reason the enlightened civil society should find realistic ways to stop this vicious circle. A better education, after being contributed to, also contributes in turn to the socio-economic environment. This is a principle often recalled, but hardly applied. The NGO I am working for in Maastricht strives for the enforcement of that principle. Formed by an international student, it aims to (and it’s named after) Empower European Universities to contribute to society’s development. Empower European University, in its recently published policy report “The State of University Policy for Progress in Europe”, does much more than my intuitive reasoning; it demonstrates with non-arbitrary indicators the link between valuable higher education systems and economic innovation, and provides feasible recommendations to policy makers. EEU’s research proves that, in times of economic crisis, it is possible to do more with less (e.g. increasing autonomy, diversifying university funding, making the best of structural funds). EEU claims for a commitment from European governments and the EU governments balanced with the benefits an effective education system would pay back to the socio-economic environment.

As a student, I experienced directly the failures and successes of a few European higher education systems. I sought the causes lying behind the failures.  I do understand the need for reducing or (better said) rationalizing resources. However, approaching the end of my academic path, when I see low commitment from decision-makers to education, my mind can’t help but to recall the masochist behavior of the neighbor’s poor old dog. Every year that passes it seems clearer to me that a society cutting on education is a society wounding its future. The vicious circle has to be stopped if Europe doesn’t want to end up like Zorro, the dog chasing his own tail.

Article by Andrea Gentili