Students seek special treaty to increase mobility

Europe’s students cited funding of student mobility as “the most contentious issue on the agenda” as ministers met to discuss the Bologna process on 26-27 April.

They put a demand for more cash and a new special mobility treaty to achieve movement of students and academics, on the ministerial agenda.

The 2012 report on Bologna with Student Eyes from the European Students’ Union (ESU) finds much wrong with the state of higher education in Europe but focuses on the lack of proper and adequate funding as “the most significant obstacle to mobility”, especially for students from less well-off backgrounds.

In its annual report on the Bologna process, which was launched in 1999 to create a European Higher Education Area (EHEA), the ESU says student mobility has been the action line gaining most attention since being embraced as the hallmark of the EHEA in 2009.

But while attention is being paid to balancing mobility flows within Europe and externally with other regions, “the key issue that remains to be solved is funding of mobility”.

Unfortunately, the ESU says, “the clear commitment to full portability of grants and loans articulated in 2009 has been quietly ignored, perhaps even withdrawn in the last three years, continuing to limit the accessibility of mobility to a great extent".

The students call on member countries to “pick up more speed” if the benchmark for student mobility is to be reached.

Issues to be considered include “fundamental challenges with insufficient financial support, lack of basic rights for mobile students and recognition of needs to be addressed at a trustworthy level”.

The EU's expressed commitment to full portability of loans and grants “is worthless, unless tied to a deadline and defined clearly”, says the report.

Mobility must be opened up as a possibility for all students, regardless of socio-economic background, it demands.

While accepting that student mobility continues to grow, “the imbalances in mobility flows within Europe, as well as with other continents, must be addressed [and] financing and students’ rights in movement within the EHEA post-2020 should be explored".

The report calls for development of a 'mobility treaty' in order to achieve truly free movement of students and academics.

Such a treaty “should seek to guarantee equal and fair rights for mobile students, entail a common mobility financing policy ensuring balanced mobility streams, and overcome remaining recognition and information obstacles”.

The ESU notes that today’s young generation is the most highly educated ever but “the gap between expectations and what our societies can deliver seems only to be growing wider”.

Given the increasing levels of graduate debt and the unpromising labour market situation for young people, “it should then be no wonder that protest is the preferred means of influencing policy”.

Social movements, often centred on students and young people “in an extremely precarious situation regarding their study and job prospects”, are gaining momentum.

More generally, fundamental issues such as the funding and governance of higher education should be at the forefront of discussions held by ministers of education, the ESU says.

“Whether public investment based on the long-term growth generated on one hand, or on the type and magnitude of social costs prevented on the other hand, the same conclusion is reached: public investment towards education is not only the smartest but also the necessary thing to do.”

The ESU report says that imbalances in the flow of mobile students are increasingly provoking political debates regarding national education budgets.

“This conflicts with a more European outlook where, for example in the European Union, freedom of movement for citizens and the workforce is seen as a fundamental right.”

The current social and economic crisis has propelled unemployment to soaring levels in most European countries, especially among young people.

“Now more than ever, higher education systems are placed under enormous pressure to reinforce the relevance of education and contribute to equipping European citizens with the knowledge and skills required to counter the current crisis, while at the same time to lay the foundation for long-term sustainability,” says the ESU.

“Arguably, the Bologna process has not been properly employed to address this policy necessity in the last three years, and has not kept pace with the rapid developments regarding national-level discussions on financing of higher education, employability and the social dimension.

“This renders Europe’s potential underexploited as attention is scattered, leading to vastly different responses, while the Bologna process platform can and should be used to punch above one’s weight.”

The ESU says that despite the reforms and the changes in higher education for students in Europe since 1999, it is “unfortunately again forced to report that progress has not yet caught up with the expectations propagated by the commitment and targets set by ministers".

Development over the three years since the Leuven-Louvain-la-Neuve Conference in 2009 has not been satisfactory in a number of areas, even deplorably sliding backwards on some of the key action lines, it says.

The cracks that have become visible in the current economic and political context continent-wide are pointing to the necessity of using the vision for a common EHEA to pave a new path for Europe.

“We should not allow it to simply become an idyllic moment of nostalgia of once great thoughts,” the ESU concludes.

European education ministers are meeting in Bucharest, Romania, for the eighth ministerial conference in the Bologna cycle.