A few weeks ago the European Students' Union (ESU) celebrated its 30th anniversary. It has been an exciting history for an organisation that started in 1982 as a European information bureau for Western students: a reaction to Soviet domination of the international student movement. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, it opened its doors to student movements from across Europe.
Judging by the tales of some of the early heroes and heroines, there were plenty of special moments.
In the early days, one of them was steering Norwegians away from saving whales to saving a nascent student movement.
Another was diverting the European Commission a decade ago from the false ‘good idea’ of bundling all youth and student movements together in a vast liaison group. The students, in a major victory for European democratic practice, eventually got the Commission to recognise their merits as part of the representative body of students. And with good cause.
The ESU is the umbrella organisation for 47 national unions of students in 39 countries, nominally representing 11 million students. Its committee is composed of those who won elections at three levels: their university, their national union and now Europe. This is much more than one can say of many other European bodies.
A turning point for the ESU was getting into the Bologna process in 2001. Successive ESU representatives have established a reputation as serious policy-makers and accomplished diplomats. Among their achievements was to demonstrate the risks of commodification of higher education and to get the sector recognised by Bologna ministers as a public responsibility.
Although full membership of the management body, the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG), is reserved for national representatives and the European Commission, as a special member, the ESU – like the European University Association – has had the advantage of being a permanent member of the BFUG board.
So what do the ESU and others do behind closed doors? This is an interesting time to ask. Ministers from the 47 Bologna states do not meet again until April 2015. In the meantime the BFUG has had to prepare a work plan based on the last communiqué, the results of which it will have to deliver before the next ministerial meeting. That leaves plenty of time for the ambitious to help shape policy.
I have just read the 2012-15 Bologna work plan, which contrary to previous practice is not on the web. The new secretariat “regards it as an internal document”.
The plan, agreed in June and now circulating fairly openly, explains that the BFUG will be operating through four working groups: one on reporting on Bologna process implementation; a second on the core tools of a European Higher Education Area – qualification frameworks, recognition, quality assurance and transparency; a third on the social dimension and lifelong learning; and a fourth on mobility and internationalisation.
The document reveals that, as with European Union (EU) education, the general tone of the work is to encourage working through the instruments of the open method of coordination: the use of indicators and target setting, and above all peer learning on good practice. This is the third way open to policy sectors where the law cannot be used and intergovernmental cooperation is often ineffective.
The European Commission can support and finance, and is doing so quite dramatically. It will, for example, support an experimental group of 10 countries introducing automatic recognition for one another’s degrees: a long-term aim of the EHEA. But the European Commission has been meticulous in ensuring it has support from national delegations or stakeholders, again leaving space for the entrepreneurial.
The Bologna work plan also reveals that the management of three of these four core groups remains in the hands of individuals who have been in place for more than a decade. The one exception is the working group on social dimension and lifelong learning. It is co-chaired by the Irish national representative and the dynamic chairperson of the ESU, Karina Ufert, who comes from Lithuania. Ufert says there are not too many who volunteer for such a burden of work. But the co-chairmanship is also a canny move: their countries will be holding the EU presidency in 2013 and can be expected to provide support.
Whatever the future holds, the democratic deficit question does not go away. What does all this secrecy do for the construction of the European Higher Education Area? The ESU, with its electoral mandate and its alumni now holding responsible jobs in ministries and educational NGOs, understands better than most that knowledge needs to be shared.
The next two years will challenge ESU leaders to be more than accomplished technocrats and to show that they can also be opinion formers for the wider university constituency. On the basis of my encounters with the ESU, I would like to think that they were up to it.
* Anne Corbett is a visiting fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her latest publication is "Lisbon and Education", in The EU’s Lisbon Strategy: Evaluating success, understanding failure, edited by Paul Copeland and Dimitris Papadimitriou and published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012.
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