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Higher education institutions across Europe face today a demanding and complex financial context in which traditional modes of funding have been transformed and continue to evolve. Moreover, public sources are not as generous as they often were in the past and frequently become more demanding and competitive. The changes are particularly significant in Europe due to the traditional reliance on public funding. The current economic and financial crisis has exacerbated even further these problems, with growing pressures upon the sustainability of funding regimes of public higher education and the pressure mounting to explore new sources of income.

The efficiency of funding in terms of the capability to meet certain policy goals in a cost-effective way is becoming increasingly important.

The DEFINE project made funding efficiency in higher education the main focus of research and activities, thereby providing data and recommendations which will support the development of strategies to increase the efficiency of funding. The project notably included the setting up of international focus groups of university practitioners to determine good practice, challenges and pitfalls as well as the impact of funding efficiency measures such as performance-based mechanisms, institutional mergers and excellence schemes.

The project aimed at contributing to the improved design and implementation of higher education funding policy and thereby to enhanced funding efficiency in the sector.

The project findings fed into current and future higher education funding policy development at national and European level and support universities in responding to these changes. The project therefore had a large impact on the European higher education area.

The DEFINE project ran from October 2012 until Spring 2015. 

DEFINE was co-funded by the European Commission under the Lifelong Learning Programme (2012). This project webpage reflects the views only of the project consortium, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

For queries on the DEFINE project, please contact:

At this final event, the project team presented an overview of the findings and conclusions of the research carried out in the DEFINE project. Particular emphasis was given to recommendations to policy makers and universities regarding the set-up of performance-based funding mechanisms, merger processes, and so-called excellence schemes.

The work carried out in the project has been summarised in a final publication which was released on that occasion. The team also presented a pilot online tool which maps, for the first time at European scale, the different mergers involving universities in the past fifteen years.

On 9 and 10 October 2014, EUA organised the second edition of the Universities’ Funding Forum at the University of Bergamo, Italy. The Forum was set within the DEFINE project and addressed its main pillars: performance-based funding, mergers and concentration processes, funding for excellence and efficiency measures.

In the first half of 2014, three thematic focus groups met and discussed issues related to performance-based funding, merger processes and excellence schemes. Experts from higher education institutions across Europe, experienced in these areas, were invited to discuss and identify good practice, challenges and pitfalls as well as the impact of the three measures on the management and the activities of higher education institutions.

The focus groups gave participants the opportunity to:

  • Exchange their experience with peers and network
  • Get exclusive access to first findings from the DEFINE project
  • Directly contribute to the policy-development at national and European level

The results fed into the final project publication and will also be discussed and were presented at the second EUA Funding Forum in autumn 2014.

EUA and HUMANE, the Heads of University Management and Administration Network in Europe, co-organised on 22-23 November an open seminar at the University of Aveiro (Portugal) dedicated to the challenging question “how to fund universities efficiently”.

Some 60 participants discussed the impact of a variety of measures aiming at enhancing funding efficiency in higher education on university management. Thomas Estermann presented the preliminary results of EUA’s analysis on the topic, covering 22 European countries while case studies from six different countries illustrated the challenges associated with changing funding models, mergers and concentration processes.

It appeared from the discussions that there is a general trend towards making funding allocation more transparent and more competitive through redistributive funding formulae at least partly based on performance. Common challenges highlighted during the seminar included the risk of “game playing” induced by the selection of indicators, the difficulty for universities to generate the requested data on which the indicators are based, and the cost for universities and authorities of the whole process.

A number of participants confirmed that beyond a greater focus on accountability, universities are also increasingly called on to demonstrate the impact that their activities (and notably the research they conduct) have on their environment, which can raise a number of issues.

Case studies also shed a new light on the various challenges for universities triggered by mergers and other concentration processes, including the necessity to comply with different regulations, for instance regarding staff, the difficulties in integrating real estate and infrastructure management, as well as fostering a new common organisational culture. A key message was the importance of having good communication among partners as well as sufficient financial support to carry out the process.

Finally, participants from about 18 countries explained how their institutions sought to foster efficiency measures internally or through collaboration mechanisms with other stakeholders. Discussions showed how regulatory frameworks and organisational structures had a strong influence on what type of activities the central university management could develop in this regard. In decentralised structures, one priority is to foster synergies among the different units to promote common approaches, for example by organising common procurement processes. In certain countries, sector-level approaches had already been developed.

The seminar generated a lot of qualitative input that was fed into the DEFINE project.

DEFINE was both a research project and a stock-taking exercise which provided recommendations to policy-makers and universities in order to improve the design of funding efficiency measures in higher education.

In particular, DEFINE sought to:

  • identify changes and main trends in the selectivity of funding by governments regarding institutions and objectives;
  • assess the impact of measures implemented by public authorities with an intended effect on efficiency of funding in higher education through benchmarking and identification of best practice across different systems and analyse intended and unintended effects (cost-benefit analysis);
  • identify best practices in efficient funding for higher education that are transferable across different systems and institutions;
  • analyse the lessons learned from funding measures aimed at increasing the funding efficiency in the health sector and determine best practices that are transferable to the higher education sector;
  • provide updated and comprehensive data on the impact of the economic crisis on public funding allocated to higher education and thus evidence for policy-makers to make informed discussions about future higher education funding;
  • improve the design and implementation of measures in the higher education sector, contributing to enhanced funding efficiency and thus supporting a crucial aspect of the modernisation of higher education across Europe.

DEFINE notably explored the challenges related to performance-based funding mechanisms, merger processes and excellence schemes, and in particular their impact on university management.

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