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Call for students to unite behind one global voice

The European Students' Union, or ESU, has become the first student organisation to formally adopt 'the Bergen Declaration', a global student declaration in defence of the right to higher education and against commodification, drafted by student activists from around the world, and aimed at creating a global student movement.

The declaration, composed by student representatives from South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, says education is a human right and one of the “great social equalizers” but is under threat from commodification, neglect for quality, lack of accessibility and attacks on students’ fundamental rights.

It calls for universal cooperation “in the defence of students’ rights, public tertiary education and access to education for all”.

A key demand is that governments should work actively towards the development of global frameworks of recognition of tertiary qualifications.

In a statement published on 1 June, Fernando Galan, president of the European Students’ Union, an umbrella organisation of 45 national unions of students in 38 countries, said: “A global student voice will not be built all at once, but the Bergen Declaration sets the foundations from which a global student movement can be shaped. Now more than ever before, students need to stand together in solidarity and demand our rights to self-organise, to enjoy freedom of speech and accessible education.”

The National Union of Students in Norway, or NSO, and ESU jointly took the initiative to invite student activists from the student movements in Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Burma, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, Spain and the Pacific island of Niue together to compose a document that demonstrates a statement of values for a global student voice.

It says: “We believe that quality education should be free and inclusive for all, and our education systems should be democratic, built on the principles of academic freedom, and where all students have the right to representation and to self-organise.”

The declaration says students’ ability to self-organise must be reflected in their learning experience, where students have the right to be represented by democratically elected representatives. A democratic education system promotes and protects student representation on every level of governance within the institution, and students should be treated as equal partners in their education, it adds.

“Unless academic freedom is upheld in our education systems, education is not truly free. We believe that campuses must be places for debate and discussion, where freedom of speech is fostered and freedom of ideas is encouraged. Students have the right to self-determined and self-produced media on campus,” the declaration says.

“We believe that tertiary education should be a public and universal good, and for that we defend a tertiary education system free of tuition fees and any other cost, guarantee the access to every citizen of the world, regardless of their socio-economic background.”

The declaration argues that education is one of the most important tools for providing global citizens with the necessary skills and opportunities to fight climate change, empowering individuals and building resilient communities that will challenge the current development model which is causing harm to the planet and its people.

ESU said this is not the first attempt to build an international student voice. In the past, students used to gather from across the world to discuss ways forward in making education systems more egalitarian and inclusive. What is new now is the means of communication that significantly reduces space, time and costs, thus making it easier to share ideas and collaborate in real time.

Galan said: “Being united beyond regional borders makes us truly stronger. This document is just the beginning of something bigger, and the start of a long term process.”

Global movement

According to Helge Schwitters, NSO’s officer for international affairs, the Bergen Declaration is an open document that will be shared with every student organisation in the world, in the hope that as many as possible will adopt it. The ambition is to bring student organisations closer together and use it as a foundation for closer cooperation and the building of a network “that can develop into a global movement”.

The declaration also notes that education is increasingly becoming a target in conflicts around the world, hindering access to education, and peace development efforts during and after conflicts. It condemns any attack on education institutions and particularly calls for states to commit to initiatives that protect them.

In its final paragraph, the declaration commits the signatories to “further develop cooperation to defend these principles”. Indicative strategies include to host further meetings with students, exchange information in support of our common struggles, and expressions of support to national and regional actions.

Schwitters said: “The final paragraph in the declaration sets out an ambitious and visionary course – we wish to develop a formal cooperation across continents. Students need a united global voice. The major debates that affect our education and future may not be taken without students there in the room.”

He said the NSO had been seeking a common global student voice for many years and when it was granted the hosting of the ESU general assembly in Autumn 2014, it began work on actively achieving it. With ESU as a driving force, activists have reached out to a large group of organisations outside of Europe and the other national unions of students in Europe have joined in the work.

“We must work to create forums for the organisations which support the Bergen Declaration,” Schwitters said. “We are looking for supporters. Representation and inclusion of the future generation will be a crucial key to ensure sustainable development in the world.”
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