EUROPE: Time for higher education investment is now

After a year of leading the European Students' Union, the umbrella organisation for 45 national student unions from 38 countries, and being intensively involved in higher education politics at different levels for the past six years, I am convinced that the momentum for investment in higher education is now. Ironically, only a few governments in Europe realise this.

Over the past year we have been working very hard in the European Students' Union (ESU) to change the views of European governments when it comes to the commodification of higher education.

We have witnessed student-organised protests from north to south and from east to west, as governments chose to raise administration or tuition fees, or to install penalties for extended study time. Some countries, however, are rowing back from tuition fees or maintaining a zero-student contribution attitude.

Germany had to make cuts along every budget line, but safeguarded education, setting an example that investment in education is all about priorities and long-term prospects: it is not about the financial crisis, it is not about the Bologna process - whatever your minister tells you.

With regard to the Bologna process, this is an area where the ESU will obviously intensify its work again next year, with the upcoming ministerial conference in April 2012 in Bucharest.

Over the past year, the ESU has failed to find the enthusiasm to implement change among the signatory countries that made the Bologna process so successful in the early years. Governments suffer from reform fatigue; others, in my view, never had any other goal than that of merely being part of the club.

A great challenge for the ESU, and for all the consultative members of the Bologna process, will be to push the implementation process further and fight for concrete implementation measures.

Some of the signatory countries need that push to start working on Bologna action lines. Others need it to complete their implementation in a holistic way, and others require it to support those facing particular problems over implementation so that all European students can finally enjoy the real benefits of one big European Higher Education Area.

Over the past year I have also experienced a changing attitude in the European Commission's Directorate General for Education and Culture.

I assume and would demand, given the discussions at various stakeholder consultations and other commission events, that the next version of the higher education modernisation agenda will be far more student-friendly than its predecessor. And it is about time!

Renewed attention to issues of access for under-represented groups is needed, investment in higher education as a social mobility tool is needed, and so are investments in the flagship programme of the European Union's education agenda: Erasmus study periods and placements.

It would be hypocritical not to realise this in the next EU budget and I hope that the European officials quarrelling over the budget will realise that without properly investing in it, they cannot declare that European youth are on the move, cannot promise to allow 20% of students in Europe to be mobile and study abroad, and cannot educate the citizens of Europe for a stronger society.

Furthermore, I hope Europe pushes the idea of student-centred learning to the next level. Over the past year, the ESU and I have been promoting our definition of and checklist on student-centred learning in higher education institutions heavily through our Toolkit for Student-Centred Learning, which was presented in Leuven in October 2010.

Although everybody is enthusiastic about the idea and everybody acknowledges it is crucial to change the mentality of teachers, I rarely see governments introducing measures to actually allow student-centred learning.

More focus on and time for quality teaching, and more rewards for good teachers, teaching methods or teaching innovation would be some ways of moving towards this and I hope the EU's modernisation agenda can push governments towards these measures.

It is a challenge, though, to get this idea into practice in a vast number of European countries where very formal types of education still exist, and teachers are still stuck in ivory towers, focused entirely on research-based performance indicators.

Next year will be another turning point for all of these issues and I hope the ESU can continue to build a reputation for strong and professional student representation despite the manifold actions needed at the same time.

We are living through extremely challenging times, with a crumbling Europe - closing borders, Euro zone threats from Greece - and a growing intolerance all across Europe, with populist right-wing parties gaining majorities in many countries.

Education is the answer to these problems. The best way out of the economic crisis is by upskilling and if necessary re-skilling Europe's labour force. The best way to prevent Europe reverting to the dark times of the early 20th Century is by teaching history and ethics and by making the public as educated as possible through widening access.

Higher education has a crucial role to play in building tolerance. Furthermore, student mobility, a goal everybody favours, is the ideal way of increasing tolerance and promoting European values and cross-cultural understanding among our citizens.

Investing in access to and the quality of higher education will help to build a stronger economy, a more cohesive and tolerant Europe and a chance for the poorest to climb up the ladder in society.

It's a chance for the baby-boomer generation to make some of their irresponsible and unethical mistakes right for the future. Young European citizens are tired of the malpractices of the current generation of politicians.

The ESU's challenge in the next year will be to voice that, together with the 11 million students in Europe it is representing, and to argue for a better share of the EU budget, for faster and more holistic Bologna implementation, for a fairer higher education financing system and for a more student-centred and accessible learning environment.

* Bert Vandenkendelaere is outgoing chair of the European Students' Union, and has a masters in law from the Catholic University of Leuven.