A reference dataset helps researchers and policymakers understand the individual higher education institutions and their heterogeneity in Europe

Our new paper in Scientific Data presents the reference dataset on European Higher Education Institutions in Europe, now with up to 10 years of data and nearly 3,500 HEIs in about 40 European countries

Understanding individual higher education institutions (HEIs) and their diversity in Europe has been of interest since (at least) the 1970s. During this period, European higher education systems, once characterized by homogeneity—with the majority of HEIs being PhD-awarding universities under tight state control and with low autonomy—began a transformative journey. This transformation was driven by two key forces: first, the imperative to broaden the higher education landscape to encompass diverse, professionally oriented institutions, and second, the competitive and strategic differentiation of HEIs resulting from the new governance models inspired by New Public Management.

Yet, no integrated system of institutional-level data was available in Europe until the European Tertiary Education Register (ETER) was established in 2013. ETER has been funded and supported by the European Commission alongside other tools, such as U-Multirank, designed to improve evidence-based decision-making in the higher education sector, aligned with the European agenda for modernizing higher education systems. Today, it offers a stable list of European HEIs with essential details and quantitative data on resources and activities collected from national authorities and scrutinized for consistency and quality. Notably, ETER introduced stable organizational identifiers, shared with the OrgReg register, facilitating linkage between HEIs and other entities, such as associated university hospitals, and providing information on demographic events. This integration allows ETER data to be merged with other sources, enhancing transparency and the potential for data analysis and evidence-based policymaking in higher education.

As of Spring 2023, the ETER dataset included nearly 3,500 HEIs across 41 European countries: the EU-27 member states, countries in the European Economic Area - Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, Switzerland, as well as the United Kingdom, and a majority of the candidate and potential EU candidate countries, namely North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Türkiye. Additionally, there is some available data for Andorra and the Holy See. Data collected annually spans from 2011 to 2020 for most countries, although there are occasional gaps in certain years, particularly in Balkan countries and France.

Variables and indicators for higher education research and policymaking

ETER includes an extensive array of variables and a broad spectrum of indicators, complemented by flags and remark fields, for a total of about 800 data fields per institution and year. Additional variables and indicators are added to the data on a rolling basis following consultation with the ETER governance bodies. These expansions are driven by two primary factors: the increasing availability of globally comparable institution-level higher education data and the evolving requirements of the ever-growing ETER user community. Indeed, in just a few years, the ETER dataset has become widely used both for policy analysis and evaluation by the European Commission and its contractors and for scholarly research. The newly added variables and indicators allow zooming in on questions that are relevant for both academic inquiry and policy formulation.

In the most recent data release in Spring 2023, an expanded set of variables and indicators was introduced in addition to the existing ones. These included, for example:

  • Academic personnel by level of seniority (broken down by gender) included for 19 countries (see Figure 1 below as an example)
Fig. 1. Academic personnel by seniority level and gender in Switzerland, 2020 (Source: ETER)
  • European Universities initiative alliances membership (for an illustrative example of how the new variables may be used together with the existing ETER data see Fig 2.)
Fig 2. Total number of students ISCED levels 5-7 (2019/2020) per European Universities initiative alliance. (Source: ETER)
  • EU Framework Programmes project data (figures 3 and 4 below provide some illustrative examples that is the total number of participations in EU-FP projects and the number of ERC grants of higher education institutions on the regional level for the year 2019).
Fig.3. Total number of EU-FP project participations of higher education institutions per NUTS2 region (2019) (Source: ETER)

Fig. 4. Number of European Research Council (ERC) grants of higher education institutions per NUTS2 region (2019) (Source: ETER)

  • Data and indicators on participation of adult learners in higher education (figures 5 and 6 below provide an illustrative example of the share of mature ISCED 6 and ISCED 7 students on the institutional level for selected countries).
Fig. 5. Boxplot of share of mature students ISCED 6 for selected countries, 2020 (Source: ETER)
Fig. 6. Boxplot of share of mature students ISCED 7 for selected countries, 2020 (Source: ETER)

Further indicators will be added to the dataset alongside the publication of latest round of data in the Spring of 2024.

Future of ETER

Following a decade of support for the development and improvements of ETER by the European Commission, the dataset has been identified as a backbone for the European Higher Education Sector Observatory, due to be established in late 2023. The Observatory will combine the current EU data tools and capacities in one single place, building on the existing synergies between ETER and other data tools, such as U-Multirank. The primary objective of the Observatory is to streamline and focus monitoring efforts, eliminating redundancy and alleviating the data collection burden on higher education institutions, as envisioned in the European strategy for universities (January 2022, p.12). The establishment of the Observatory marks a pivotal milestone, ensuring sustained resources for the maintenance and advancement of an integrated data system on higher education in Europe. This comprehensive system will encompass data at the system level, institutional level, and individual level, thus building upon a decade of progress made by ETER and other data tools and strengthening the foundation for evidence-based decision-making in European higher education.

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