EUROPE: Students face 'new and sad reality'

Today's students do not want to "go down in history as the first generation of modern Europe that can expect to 'benefit' from fewer opportunities than the previous one," Bert Vandenkendelaere, chair of the European Students' Union, told the OECD higher education conference in Paris. Threatened by significant age wage gaps, high dropout rates, rampant graduate unemployment and limited support in starting a home or family, students fear their future may be bleaker than that of their parents.

While recognising that resources are scarcer than before, he stressed that "institutional management, the design of programmes and all aspects of the educational process are there because of us and for us, the students". The student leader spoke at the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education general conference held in Paris from 13-15 September.

Europe's students argue that education is a universal right and as such should be accessible to all no matter what their social and economic background. Because higher education plays a vital role in ensuring the welfare of society, "we think that it is highly important that those who are able to succeed in higher education should be fully supported to do so," Vandenkendelaere added.

Throughout the conference, students were referred to as 'customers' or as a budding work-force - and now and then as stakeholders. Students prefer to be seen as tomorrow's responsible citizens.

"Through education we develop active citizens, skilled workers, creative builders of our future and mainly of our sustainable development," Vandenkendelaere explained. Institutions of higher learning must focus on social responsibility as much as they do on innovation and careers, he suggested.

Support of progression and completion is needed to staunch high dropout rates - 30% according to the OECD's Education at a Glance 2010 report. Students are not always at fault for failing to complete, and some institutions do not adapt or adapt too slowly to meet student requirements, the report said. Systems need to be developed to take into account the learning acquired before drop-out.

Vandenkendelaere also suggested that student-centred, quality teaching would help reduce the flow of those leaving before degree completion. This kind of reform would lead to teaching more transferable skills needed in the current job market.

High youth unemployment keeps some people in school, postponing their addition to the ranks of the unemployed. As a result, demand pressures remain high, several participants pointed out.

Squeezed to find rapid solutions, managers adopt inappropriate and inefficient stop-gap measures including poorly-designed online education programmes or over subscribed amphi-theatre classes without taking the time to devise a long-term strategic vision, they said. Furthermore, this practice had the effect of devaluing degrees, Vandenkendelaere added.

Some speakers reminded participants that the purpose of higher education was not so much to teach people a series of facts but to teach them to think, to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. In an age of over specialisation, they stressed the need for a pluri-disiplinary approach. The humanities must be rehabilitated and encouraged to flourish as much as math has in recent years, they argued.

This view was shared by François Fourcade, scientific director of the Education Science Research Lab for the Paris Chamber of Commerce. He's revised his teaching methods radically and now thinks that students get from A to B more quickly if allowed to dawdle along their own dusty, zig-zaggy path, stopping at points in between, rather than being forced to march together down a single, well-paved highway.

It was time to reform when Fourcade realised that he and his colleagues had helped train those responsible for the financial meltdown, he admitted.

Supplying greater practical experience for students was another leitmotiv of the conference.

Vandenkendelaere stressed the need for more internships. Study and internships abroad should be more fully encouraged, he urged. A target of 20% student mobility should be a common aim of both the European High Education Area as well as OECD countries, he said. The enriching experience of study abroad should be the norm rather than the exception for those whose pockets are deep enough to afford it, he argued.

In closing he urged that rather than 'doing more with less' as the conference theme suggested, institutions should aim to do more with at least the same. Times may be tough, Vandenkendelaere concluded, but students are "not content to remain passive in the face of this new and sad reality".