When it comes to European universities, the United Kingdom is the land of the free, according to a new report from the European Universities Association (EUA), launched yesterday. The report ranks the university systems of 26 European countries on their autonomy in deciding internal structure, admissions and staffing criteria, and management of funds. Although individual countries vary widely on specifics, U.K. universities rank high in all measures of autonomy measured by the study, and a few countries such as Greece, and, surprisingly, France, rank relatively low.
This is the second report which EUA has put out on university autonomy; the first, in 2009, grouped all aspects of autonomy together. The new report released yesterday includes a scorecard  that ranks countries' higher education systems in four areas: organizational, financial, staffing, and academic autonomy. The scores were based on questionnaires and interviews with university rectors and gave each country a rating of 0% to 100%, with 100% being completely free of government control.
"What it shows very well is that you have to look at different dimensions of autonomy" rather than grouping them, says author Thomas Estermann, as aspects can vary between and within countries. For instance, France's university system scores the lowest of any country in academic autonomy, which includes the ability to select students, set curricula, and cap student numbers. France does not let universities limit student admissions; criteria for admission are set by an external authority. But universities in France do fairly well in financial autonomy: For example, a 2011 reform allows them to purchase some of their own buildings, Estermann says. Results for other countries are less disparate: Greece ranks low in all four counts while the United Kingdom consistently ranks high.
Estermann says it's difficult to tell how strongly autonomy is linked with the quality of universities, since quality is so difficult to measure. But some aspects of quality, such as the ability to attract outside funding, are linked with financial autonomy, and the ability to attract top staff members are also linked with autonomy in setting salaries. Of itself, however, autonomy without funding "doesn't help you very much." That's a problem right now. Funding restraints, particularly under austerity measures like those being imposed during the current Eurozone crisis, can severely limit universities' ability to set their own fees, set budgets, and acquire public support.
Estermann expects the report to be "provocative" rather than recommend how universities should manage themselves, he says. "What it really should do is enable a comparison between countries."