Act now for social inclusion in higher education

The European Union’s (EU) so-called Social Dimension is one of the crucial points of the Bologna process from a student perspective. But what does the concept mean?

According to a ministerial conference held in London in 2007, the Social Dimension fosters social inclusion, reduces inequalities and raises aspirations and the level of knowledge, skills and competence in society.

It also covers social diversity with regard to participation in and completion of higher education at all levels.

This not only sounds like an ambitious plan, but a highly complex and perhaps rather unfocused one. However, it is easy to understand why it is called a dimension. Nearly all decisions made in higher education have a social impact.

This loose definition has pros and cons. On the one hand, it provides the opportunity for people to interpret the Social Dimension according to their own regional needs or circumstances. On the other hand, it can be a barrier since the expected measurable operational steps are rather unclear.

From a student perspective, the Social Dimension represents the underlying process that allows for social diversity from admission to graduation and entry into the labour market.

From 7-11 March, various aspects of the Social Dimension were discussed at the European Students’ Convention in Ireland’s capital Dublin. Several questions about the disadvantages and future developments of the concept were raised at the convention.

Who is society?

The Social Dimension influences everyone in society. But who is society? Whose responsibility is implementation of the Social Dimension?

Perhaps it is the responsibility of regional and national governments. However, education is also a pan-European concern and therefore the role of the EU needs clarification. Currently, Europe has no decision-making powers regarding education, but it has to fund the results of a lack of social integration across the continent.

It is clear that there is an educational component of the current financial crisis and that it has major implications for students in Europe. Not only could the crisis stop the further development of the Social Dimension process, but it could also reverse the effects of the process in future.

The postcode effect

Access to higher education is still a social problem. In countries like the UK, Ireland and The Netherlands it is easy to predict a person's future simply by looking at his or her postcode. It is a clear indicator of existing social segregation.

There is no universal solution to how to improve access to higher education, simply because different under-represented groups need different solutions. But the socio-economic background of people is the biggest factor hindering access to higher education.

The EU’s solution to that problem is to provide loans to students, while forgetting that students need to pay back their debts. The financing of education is a big part of the Social Dimension and we need some strong actions.

Events like the European Access Network’s world congress in October 2013 are important platforms for addressing these issues.

Preventing early dropouts

Many students have already dropped out of the education system before they have the chance to enter higher education. Therefore it is important to develop inclusion schemes at the early stages of education. Starting at secondary level is too late.

In many countries, like Germany and Austria, the academic selection process starts much earlier. It is possible to intervene early through initiatives such as the Science in Society activities or Children's Universities – for example, SIS Catalyst.

These activities do not guarantee that the target groups enter higher education, but they help future students to know about the options.

Preparing the future

Also under discussion is whether the Social Dimension should just ensure that everyone has the same opportunities for education or if it should address individual needs. In the latter case, the Social Dimension would not only be a source of equality but also a source of justice.

Whatever the outcome of such debate, we need action. We need to plan for the future today and governments need to recognise the value of long-term investments. Excuses about why it is not possible to work on the Social Dimension have been tolerated for far too long.

The Irish presidency of the EU has an important chance to push for a stronger focus on the Social Dimension and for the commitment of member states. This could be a chance to increase equality and to provide hope to the younger generation in our society.

* Florian Kaiser is a member of the executive committee of the European Students‘ Union.