Effective and efficient higher education

The effectiveness and efficiency of higher education systems relate, in part, to the availability of funding and the promotion of a culture of quality.

Towards effective and efficient higher education

Achieving effectiveness and efficiency in higher education depends on public authorities creating the right framework, withing which higher education institutions can operate. This is characterised by adequate funding and effective quality assurance policies, among other factors. 

The EU's strategic framework for Education and Training (ET 2020) stresses that: 

  • Higher education systems require adequate funding and, as an investment in economic growth, public spending in higher education should be protected
  • The challenges faced by higher education require more flexible governance and funding systems, which balance greater autonomy for education institutions with accountability to stakeholders

The Renewed EU agenda for higher education also reinforces the need for adequate and efficiently deployed human and financial resources, as well as the use of incentives and reward systems.

Moreover, the reform and modernisation of Europe’s higher education system relies on the efforts and competences of teaching and research staff. Despite this, staffing levels do not expand at the same rate as student numbers in many cases.

Improved working conditions, better initial training and continued professional development, and greater recognition of teaching and research excellence are essential to ensure that Europe produces, attracts and retains the high-quality academic staff it needs.

Why is effective and efficient higher education important? 

Quality assurance raises confidence in higher education. Every higher education institution should have a rigorous system of internal quality assurance assessed by external Quality Assurance Agencies. 

Such challenges require greater flexibility. Autonomous institutions can specialise more easily, promoting improved performance in teaching and research, and excellence within higher education systems. However, legal, financial, and administrative restrictions often limit institutions’ freedom to define strategies and structures, and to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

In addition, national governments in EU Member States remain responsible for their higher education systems and their funding.

What is the EU doing to promote effectiveness and efficiency in higher education?

Through its support for research and policy cooperation, the Commission assists EU Member States to develop effective higher education governance and funding models. The Commission is also cooperating with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on a review of funding, incentive and reward structures for higher education systems. 

Furthermore, the Commission is fostering mutual learning on good practices in governance and funding among EU Member States through the peer counselling instrument and peer learning activities.

Between 2014 and 2020, 17 EU Member States invested European structural and investment funds (ESIF) in higher education. Overall, €5.2 billion from the European Social Fund (ESF) was spent on training individuals, reforming programmes and aligning education with the needs of the labour market. 

An additional €1.5 billion from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) was spent on revitalisation and building new education infrastructure. 

Some loan-based support managed by the European Investment Bank (EIB) Group is also available to higher education institutions. Institutions can apply for a loan to upgrade their facilities through the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) and participate in innovative funding programmes, such as Erasmus+ master degree loans for international students. 

With regard to quality assurance, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG) in the European Higher Education Area set a common framework ensuring accountability at European, national and institutional level. The European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) for higher education also helps to develop quality assurance at the European level.

The Commission publishes progress reports on developments in quality assurance at the European level in the field of higher education.