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EUROPE: Student unrest in an era of economic crisis

In a year that was marked by the euro crisis, and bailouts not only of banks but also entire sovereign countries, it is not surprising that higher education in Europe has taken quite a battering. Despite widespread agreement that higher education is a public good first and foremost, and thus a public responsibility, current trends paint an interesting picture, to say the least.

Higher education has not escaped the current austerity drive, and perhaps unsurprisingly so.

Cuts in public funding of higher education institutions, down-scaling of student support, the introduction of or increase in tuition fees (although sometimes under the mantra "no payment at the point of delivery"), limiting the number of foreign students eligible to apply - all of these have been the first basic reactions.

At the same time, few would disagree that higher education might provide a way out of the crisis.

Perhaps things are not that simple, but we are in a crisis that is essentially a crisis for the welfare society and the welfare state. The problem for governments lies in structural factors in public budgets that drive up debt, creating a vicious economic circle.

Funding of education is hardly a cause of structural debt and there is plenty of proof around to back arguments for more investment. But higher education is rarely a fiscal priority, especially when the solution seems to be 'the student' or 'the graduate' and where public investment can easily be turned into a private one.

Numerous cuts in public funding of higher education in a variety of European countries show that the idea of public investment in higher education as part of the solution to the crisis is not an appealing policy in practice.

It is true that some European countries have committed themselves to additional investment, but they are either a minority or this is just a surface claim since cuts are being made at the other end of the spectrum as they are in Germany, where at the federal level there is investment in higher education but where individual states have a different political logic.

But most importantly, one cannot doubt that there is increased pressure on students to co-finance a bigger part of their studies. We are not talking only about the tuition fees that have been rising, but also about student support and various support services that have seen cuts.

Students and their families are being asked to bear a bigger burden when it comes to higher education. Some governments even seem to be in a race to set records for fees. A fee of £9,000 (US$13,800) was certainly inconceivable in Europe a few years ago. Perhaps there comes a tipping point where cost-sharing becomes a burden on students or graduates.

Although the immediate impact might be a drop in applications, as has been shown in the case of the UK this year or in Sweden when it comes to international students, it is unlikely that higher education will lose its appeal. That in itself might be part of the problem - just about everybody now believes that higher education will yield guaranteed individual benefits.

The indication from the United States, however, is that the financial burden and loans that students have to bear if they want to get quality education are becoming too large, and this also impacts on the capacity of graduates to gain access to other funding, like credit for starting a business or buying a home.

We have observed the student protests in Chile, where students have said they have had enough and are demanding free public higher education instead of an elitist approach where higher education is only accessible to those who have enough money.

We have also seen protests in various European countries like Spain, with students fighting for the future and being angry about being forced into debt at the beginning of their adult lives, and about unemployment.

There is still no answer to the problem of how to balance the public budget in relation to the massification of higher education. Past decades have seen a rapid rise in the number of students while public investment has struggled to keep pace in many countries. Arguably, we have been witness to a fall in the quality of higher education.

Countries and institutions have turned more to the private purse, especially in those places where this has seemed an easier source of funding than attracting additional funding through using international students as 'cash cows'. At the same time, they have forgotten that there is an unrealised potential in their own countries as many people are still unable to benefit from higher education because they simply cannot afford to study.

Organisations like the OECD, which are also advocating investment in higher education as a way out of the crisis, are now also looking at this untapped source of potential. It might cost our societies much more in the long term if we do not bring under-represented groups and untapped potential into higher education.

These calculations link gross domestic product growth directly to this question. One could indeed ask governments to prove how cutting public funding of education will increase the long-term growth rate. It seems that when it come to the long-term potential of higher education there is still a lack of evidence-based data being used in policy-making.

On the other hand, seeing students as the solution to the funding issue by asking them to pay has not been fully explored. What are the long-term effects of this in relation to the challenges Europe faces, such as the need for greater innovation in society or our increasingly ageing populations?

What will happen when we have more and more graduates and when the personal financial benefit gained from university study becomes more difficult to measure as higher education is no longer seen as a privilege for the few. It seems there is a disconnect between different policy goals.

For students, these disparities are creating many tensions and are having an impact on their everyday lives and future choices.

We are also seeing that governments, such as in Hungary, are trying to tie public investment in higher education to the question of nationalism in their desire to stop students going abroad after their studies, by asking those who do to pay back the 'cost' to the state in the form of full tuition fees.

That raises questions about European solidarity and its approach to the so-called crisis.

It seems that at a time of crisis the benefits to society that are directly related to higher education have been forgotten. This is a very disturbing trend and worries students greatly.

How do we build trust in our governments if they cannot solve the crisis and make cuts without those cuts leading to long-term changes that make our societies sustainable?

Our role is to convince governments of the evidence showing the benefits of higher education, but also to make the moral case for investment. Students have been outspoken about these issues and I am certain that student protest and unrest will continue in 2012.

* Allan Pall is chair of the European Students' Union.
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