The system of European Schools, set up in 1953 to educate the children of people employed in European Union institutions, has long welcomed children of parents who do not work for the EU.
Unlike the children of EU civil servants, whose education is provided almost for free, a yearly tuition rate is levied for children with parents employed in the private sector – so-called ‘category three’ students. In theory, this tuition rate is in line with that charged by a typical private international school in the area. The reality, however, is different.
In Belgium, the home of five of the 14 European Schools, international schools can charge around €10,000 a year per pupil. By contrast, the annual fee for category-three primary students at European Schools in Belgium is €3,800.
Wolfgang Munch, president of the parents’ association at Woluwe, one of the European Schools in Brussels, says that the costs of educating children are as much for the European Schools as for their competitors. “There is a shortfall of around €7,000 to cover the costs of schooling,” says Munch. “That comes from EU and member state budgets. It is a bit of a cross-subsidy.”
Because of continued funding problems in the system, a working group set up by the European Schools board of governors proposed earlier this year to increase the tuition fees for category-three students. These fees represent the only substantial external source of income to the system, currently generating 11% of its budget.
Category-three pupils account for about 21% of the European School student population. But while about nine out of ten students in European Schools in Brussels are children of people who work for the EU, more ‘peripheral’ European Schools elsewhere have a much higher proportion of category-three pupils. There are European Schools for the children of civil servants working in EU agencies in places such as Varese in Italy, Bergen in the Netherlands, and Alicante in Spain. Of the system’s 23,000 students in 2010, 62% were in Brussels or Luxembourg, so there has been a tendency for the peripheral schools to feel ignored.
In March, the president of the school in Varese, Luca Recalcati, wrote to the European Schools board warning that an increase in category-three tuition fees would lead to a decrease in the number of children attending schools such as his. These schools rely on category-three students to maintain numbers. A decrease in pupils could mean Varese having to transform itself into a ‘type two’ school – one that is only funded by the host country. This would lead to an inequality between EU staff working in Varese and those working in Brussels and Luxembourg, he said.
The sensitivities that can surround the education of EU civil servants’ children were exposed last month over plans to close school buildings in Brussels.
The Belgian government decided that a renovation was necessary in buildings used to house the nursery classes of the European School in Uccle, in order to remove asbestos.
But controversy soon erupted over which age groups would be moved temporarily to rue de Berkendael, next to the prison. That site has been used in recent years as the temporary home of a new school to be opened in Laeken in September.
It was decided that the least disruptive option would be to have new nursery-school children moved into the Berkendael site from September, once the older students have moved into the Laeken buildings. This will give parents the option to wait to start their children in the European School system until after the renovations are complete, in one or two years.
The school in Laeken has been planned for a long time, but the opening has been much delayed.
It was one of three schools approved after the ‘big bang’ EU enlargement of 2004. A new school in Strasbourg is now fully operational, and a school in Luxembourg will open in September.
Last month, the parents’ associations of Varese, Bergen, Karlsruhe (Germany) and Mol (Belgium) wrote to the European Schools board saying that an increase in fees, and the consequent fall in category-three students, would “lead to a collapse of many of the language sections, jeopardise the existence of the schools and lead to a massive loss of revenue for the system”.
They added: “Wilfully trying to reduce the numbers of these pupils when there is space available is going against every principle of sound economic governance.”
However, schools in Brussels and Luxembourg, which have no need to fill gaps with students whose parents do not work for the EU, are understandably less concerned. “This idea to rely a little bit less on the EU budget, to make the funding more sustainable, is fully justified,” said Munch. “Around 70% of the funding is now coming from the EU budget.”
The European Schools board was expected to take a decision on the fees issue at a meeting last month, but the issue proved too difficult to resolve and discussions are continuing.
The debate about category-three fees comes in the context of a larger battle over funding. Parents’ associations are angry that that the EU is not raising the European Schools budget to the level requested for 2013. They say the below-inflation rise for next year’s budget amounts to a de facto freeze, and that leaders are reneging on the EU’s commitment to provide education for the students of workers posted outside their own country.
The associations say the costs of running the schools system next year will be €12 million higher than the allocated budget.
The European Commission has been left to make up most of the shortfall in the budget, because member states are not living up to their funding obligations. But, in these times of budget-cutting, new funding methods have to be found to reduce the pressure on the EU budget.
“The rate that is charged for category-three students does not even remotely reflect the costs,” said a Commission official.
“The question is, how far are we going to subsidise these places?”
But as the board grapples with this question, it will need to consider whether increasing fees could actually be counter-productive.
A study by the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 2006 found that category-three fee increases have historically led to reduced pupil numbers and harmed revenues.