The regional structure of European Higher Education

Expanding the geographical coverage of higher education is an important means to achieve two key objectives of the European Union Agenda for Higher Education. On the one hand, a broader geographical coverage lowers costs and barriers for students’ access to higher education, particularly for pupils from lower socio-economic groups that are more penalized by the need to move to another region. On the other hand, higher education is an essential component of the formation of human capital, which is largely recognized as a major determinant of productivity and growth.

In this respect, ETER can be used to examine the contribution of different types of Higher Education Institutions and of satellite campuses to the regional distribution of higher education. Results show that, in 2016, 59% of the NUTS 3 European regions, comprising 79% of the population and 75% of the surface of Europe, hosted at least one main seat of a Higher Education Institution. Additionally, more than 250 NUTS 3 regions (out of 1,700), containing about 15% of the EU population, are served only by satellite campuses, showing how their creation is a powerful tool to improve accessibility to higher education. Non-university institutions also significantly raise the share of European regions offering higher education and substantially increase the density and diversity of supply in densely populated areas. This process took momentum from the 1970s onward when the diffusion process of universities started to slow down. At the same time, the research function of higher education, as approximated by the number of PhD students, remains highly concentrated in large cities.

This report, therefore, shows how public policies mobilized different strategies to increase the accessibility of higher education at the regional level, while keeping resources and research activities concentrated in the metropolitan areas. First, the creation of regional universities outside the main cities, then the establishment (or consolidation) of Universities of Applied Sciences as regional hubs for education and, increasingly, societal and economic outreach. Finally, the establishment of satellite campuses as a way to provide education at the regional level while sharing human resources and infrastructures over the whole institution.

Bonaccorsi, & Lepori. (2020). The regional structure of European higher education. Zenodo.