Universities, the energy crisis and the cost-cutting trap

All over Europe, universities are facing multi-fold increases in their energy bills. This calls for action from both public authorities and higher education institutions alike, in both the short and medium term.

Universities are big consumers of energy. Their real estate tends to be large, diverse and fragmented. High energy consumption is inherent to their operations, whether for training in certain academic fields, for research activities or for maintaining such facilities as laboratories and data centres.

The development of digital infrastructure also contributes to this trend, especially with increased hybrid and online academic provision. Price hikes are now heavily weighing on university budgets, with extremely worrying projections. For example, the national association of French universities estimated additional costs of €100 million (US$105 million) for the sector in 2022, a figure which may be much higher in 2023.

In some countries, inflation and soaring energy bills compound structural underfunding of the sector. After two difficult years of the COVID-19 pandemic, this leaves universities with little room to manoeuvre and absorb another major shock. That leaves many pondering, or already implementing, measures such as lowering heating in buildings and reducing opening hours, to longer campus closures in winter and even a return to fully online tuition.

Latvian universities have chosen to intensify the study process and accommodate as many lectures, labs and research activities as possible within the period, taking into consideration students’ preference for face-to-face teaching. Other examples show how dramatic the situation could soon become.

Slovakia’s largest university recently communicated that, in the absence of state guidance regarding energy price caps, it may not be able to turn on the lights in 2023 as it had not received any bids from energy suppliers.

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