Growing numbers of universities across continental Europe are making plans to extend their Christmas holidays or to move teaching online in a bid to save on soaring energy bills.
Higher education institutions across Slovakia are planning to shut a month early, on Nov. 17, to fend off an estimated 17 million euro ($18 million) hike in energy costs. In Poland, the University of Bialystok is planning to move teaching online for a month from Jan. 7, while the country’s oldest institution, Jagiellonian University, started the academic year with 17 days of remote learning.
Both were reported to have been hit with a 700 percent increase in their electricity prices, with Jagiellonian said to be considering further periods of online learning and possibly restricting in-person teaching to Mondays to Thursdays only.
The continent’s biggest sectors are not immune. In Germany, the University of Erfurt will close its library on weekends and teach remotely for a week on either side of the Christmas holidays. In France, the University of Strasbourg is extending the Christmas holidays by a week and teaching remotely for another to help mitigate “spiraling” costs. It expects its 2023 energy bill to be €20 million ($21 million), double the 2021 figure.
The decisions have proved controversial with policy makers. Sylvie Retailleau, France’s higher education minister, has said that energy-saving measures should not be “at the expense of the students” and that teaching should avoid “the return to distance.” Polish education minister Przemysław Czarnek echoed this, stating that “savings should be sought elsewhere.” At Erfurt, a student petition opposing the university’s proposal has gathered hundreds of signatures.
Universities’ decisions will depend on their institutional finances and the age of their campus infrastructure, said Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association.
“We know the institutions are evaluating very carefully what to do and what might be the impact on students, with the highest costs around December-January. If you prolong the holidays by one or two weeks, the effect on students is different than the one you would have in the middle of the year in full exam mode,” he said.
Before the pandemic, some European students may have a welcomed an extended holiday and the opportunity to work from home around Christmas. But many are still recovering from an isolated introduction to academic life, said Emily MacPherson, a member of the European Students’ Union’s executive committee.
“It might just be a few days here and there, but this is a population already struggling,” she said. “They already have poor finances; they’re already struggling with their mental health. Those small things will affect them a lot more.”