EU: Figel says students key to quality

Students are to be taken more seriously in higher education. It may sound like a superfluous comment but the EU's Tempus conference on quality in higher education in Cairo earlier this month showed that student involvement in higher education is still too weak to guarantee true outcome-oriented and student-centred learning. Commissioner Jan Figel reiterated a call for greater involvement of students in the quality enhancement process.

The study that formed the basis of the conference focused on countries surrounding the European Union and concluded that "while feedback questionnaires are increasingly becoming the norm, they are by no means universal and there is some obscurity about exactly how they are being used and the extent to which there is consistency throughout institutions".

The study also warned that student feedback questionnaires should not be seen as the only way students can be engaged in the quality process. As it stated:
"The implementation of student feedback questionnaires has been a positive development but it needs to be set in the context of more comprehensive performance indicators, including graduate employment, feedback from employers and, as in some institutions, more active involvement with alumni over an extended period of time."

The study authors reiterated these warnings during the conference and discussions in Cairo among the 200-odd delegates showed the message was sinking in. But the road from understanding the message to living up to its implications are long and troublesome.
Perhaps European Commissioner for Education and Culture Jan Figel made that point most poignantly by not differentiating at all between countries within and surrounding the EU in his closing speech.

"As we design policies and initiatives to improve quality, we should always keep in mind the interests of the teaching staff and, above all, of the students. Degree programmes should maximise the chances for a student to find a job after graduation," Figel said. "Students and their prospective employers are important stakeholders in the design of quality-assurance policies. There should be a stronger focus on student-centred learning."

He also stressed the specific demands of student mobility in this, saying it was important that what students learned in one country could be properly understood and recognised in another.
"That is why we initiated the European Quality Charter for Mobility. It will help ensure that mobility is a useful experience," Figel said. "For example, students should have a learning plan with clear objectives and expected outcomes. They should know how their studies abroad will be recognised. They should be able to build their personal learning pathways, to their own skills and to their own motivation."

As has become the tradition at large European conferences since the Bologna meeting in Prague in 2001, where students (and rectors for that matter) almost had to force themselves into the door, students played a prominent role in Cairo.

Their involvement was one of three key themes at the conference and in a fierce and well-informed address, Ewa Krzaklewska of the Erasmus Student Network put to shame those who believe that today's students are no serious partners in the quality enhancement process.