Yes, some things might be wrong with some universities in some Western European higher education systems. In its 8th September 2005 special edition “The Brains Business”, the Economist devoted many pages to heavily critique ‘Europe’s‘ higher education system (as if there is no diversity within Europe). In many cases their critique was justified, in many cases it was imbalanced.

In their most recent edition the (Western) Europe bashing continues. In the article “from Marx to marketing” they report on the rise of (private) higher education in Eastern Europe:

“But in education, as in other industries, the new members of the European Union have the advantage of a past that leaves nowhere to go but up. Compared with their state-run counterparts in Western Europe, where academics, bureaucrats and students unite against change, universities in countries once yoked to Moscow are adapting fast to a new global market.”

Yes, many universities in Eastern Europe are showing remarkable progress. Most however are profoundly state-controlled as well. Many Eastern European governments have more control over their universities than for instance in the UK, Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. The Economist has the habit of labelling Europe with one specific country that suits their story. Sometimes with Germany and Italy if they want to emphasise ‘Western Europe’s’ overcrowded class-rooms; sometimes with the UK, if they want to emphasise the high costs in Western Europe:

“a European-level undergraduate degree with combined annual tuition and living costs of some 5,000 Euros ($6,035). At a cheap western European outfit, such as Britain’s Luton University, the cost would be three times more.”

And in several Western European countries fees are much lower than in the UK and in many places they are even non-existent.

“Places with liberal regimes have seen the fastest rowth. In Poland, which deregulated universities in the 1990s, the number of tudents has risen from 500,000 to over 2m. Slovakia, with a more rigid system, has seen numbers double.”

The mushrooming of private institutions has not just led to quality institutions but also to rogue providers. The most highly regarded universities in most of the Central and Eastern European countries (for instant in the Czech Republic and in the Baltics) are public universities and have a lot of state interference.

“The region’s nimbler, more market-oriented colleges have been helped by the new practice of dividing education into chunks (bachelor’s and master’s degrees, for a start), with work sandwiched in between. An old-style five-year degree at a single campus would be costly, even at central European rates. Doing a short master’s in Prague, say, is more manageable.

This of course is simply part of the Bologna process which is taking place all over Europe and beyond.

Again, many promising developments are taking place in Central and Eastern European countries, but a bit more balanced and informed reporting on higher education issues in the Economist would be appreciated!

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