Leicester event to debate HE autonomy issues in Europe

Few would argue that in order to be successful, universities need autonomy. They must be able to take their own decisions, and the academics working within them must have the freedom to pursue their research.

But what does the evidence show us about levels of university autonomy in Europe? And in what ways is it under threat? These are among the questions being asked at a two-day conference hosted at the University of Leicester later this month.

The event, University Autonomy in Europe Trends, Benefits, Challenges and Threats, will take place on 23 and 24 April, and is hosted by Leicester on behalf of the European University Association and Universities UK. More than 20 high-profile speakers from across Europe, including eight UK vice-chancellors, will be debating the importance of institutional autonomy, reflecting on some of the threats universities face in this challenging area.

"One of the things we are going to be asking is whether or not academics have enough freedom, and what the reason for that freedom is," said Professor Paul Boyle, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester.

"In some countries, the political situation has led to threats to autonomy - or at least perceived threats. In Turkey and Hungary, for example, political changes have brought quite rapid changes in the university system."

This week, a pro-government magazine in Hungary, Figyelo, described more than 200 people as "mercenaries" of George Soros, the Hungarian-American entrepreneur who founded the Central European University. The list included current and former CEU staff members.

Lesley Wilson, EUA secretary general, has described the incident as "a direct attack on academic freedom" and called for the Hungarian government to respect academic autonomy.

In what is a very timely session at the Leicester event, representatives from the EUA – including its President, Rolf Tarrach - will be presenting their evidence on how different countries perform on autonomy measures, while Liviu Matei, Provost and Pro-rector of CEU, will be assessing some of the threats to institutional freedom.

Delegates will also hear about university autonomy in the UK. Although the country typically rates highly on autonomy measures, including on the EUA's recently published “autonomy scorecard”, there are still challenges – particularly given the differences between the English, Welsh and Scottish systems.

"The UK sectors do have much more in common than is different," said Professor Boyle. "But there are different fees systems, different systems of research funding, and it does raise some interesting questions.

"As governance arrangements change, then those differences could grow. It will be interesting to see how things develop under the Office for Students for example," he added.

Among those discussing the UK-wide picture will be Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and President of Universities UK; Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University; and Professor Colin Riordan, President and Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University. Former universities and science minister and Leicester University Chancellor elect, Lord Willetts, will also deliver a keynote address.

Other speakers at the event include Professor Agneta Bladh, former rector of the University of Kalmar in Sweden, who will look at barriers to improving autonomy, and how they can be overcome; Elmar Pichl, Director General for higher education at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy; and Marcin Palys, Rector of the University of Warsaw in Poland.

"We are very pleased that UUK and the EUA have come together to draw in what is an impressive range of speakers," Professor Boyle said.

"It is clearly a topic has grown in importance in Europe, and it is increasingly interesting in the UK context as well, so we are pleased that we have got a diverse range of speakers who will be able to bring really quite different experiences to the table."