The student fightback against austerity has just begun

The beginning of a new academic year is the perfect moment to elaborate on what is waiting for students and student movements in higher education.

Nowadays, the European student movement has to fight to protect its leading principles and foundation – namely, that higher education is and should be considered a public good and a public responsibility.

A reader who is familiar with the ideas and goals of higher education might say, "but the principles you speak of are common sense and what all governments aim for”. I would have to answer that unfortunately this is not the case – and there are indications that decision-makers who do believe in those principles are becoming extinct.

Problems with financing and student support

One thing is obvious. The financing of higher education is going to be an even bigger problem than before. Countries are cutting public funding of higher education – both funds that are allocated to universities and those given to students.

That automatically means that students will have to take on a bigger share of the financing of their education and that they will have an even harder time accessing and completing it.

Students will therefore have to be the voice of reason, because when decision-makers say that they want to get their countries out of the crisis and simultaneously cut funds for higher education, it is as if they want to cure a patient by cutting out the heart.

The second issue concerns student support, which is directly linked to access and completion rates in higher education.

It seems as if countries do not really want more educated people, because they have started to limit, cut or in some other way make the conditions for current and future students worse.

Students do not believe that it is either reasonable or sustainable to demand that they take on more loans and debt to pay for their education, bearing in mind that the financial crisis was caused mainly by subprime mortgages.

We will continue to fight for higher education that is public, even if it is at the expense of a tank or a submarine – or a cow, if we are talking about the European Union (EU).

A dream that can come true?

Much of the Bologna process has been in limbo in recent years, with countries not paying as much attention to it as they did initially. Some things still remain to be done, starting with revision of the European Standards and Guidelines.

The European Students’ Union, or ESU, actively participates in that process. The Social Dimension Working group, under the co-chair of Ireland and the ESU, is working hard on getting the Bologna countries to commit to widening access to higher education and to opening ways for underprivileged groups to get into higher education.

Soon we will have better data that will show how well countries are doing, through data collection and peer-learning initiatives such as Eurostudent and PL4SD.

The EU is an increasingly important element in the work of the ESU. One of our aims for the European elections in May 2014 is to make political parties aware of how the EU influences higher education.

The EU does not have much competence in higher education, but this is growing with programmes such as Erasmus + and publications such as the Modernisation Agenda.

As their output seems geared towards increased commodification and an understanding of the higher education system as a service for the labour market and economy, we will have to try even harder to bring students’ perspectives into those policy processes, so that higher education will be understood as a public good and a public responsibility.

There are also increasing concerns about student mobility in Europe that will need to be addressed. Students may look for opportunities in countries with better systems because of the inequalities in student support across Europe.

If Europe wants to establish a European Higher Education Area, where students will be motivated by their desire for new knowledge and experience and not just better funding conditions, countries will have to commit to making their national student support mobile.

The ESU is currently working on a proposal for a mobility treaty, where the funding of mobility will be based on solidarity among countries. A compromise will have to be reached soon, as recent cases from the European Court of Justice have showed.

In the end, our most important task is to stop the austerity mania and to get some sense into European decision-makers.

As always, we will be loud and do whatever is needed to ensure that the future is ours – a future where education is a value, not a cost, and where children will dare to dream of getting into higher education without robbing a bank or repaying their loans for the next 30 years.

Yes, we still dare to dream that this is possible.

* Rok Primozic is chair of the European Students’ Union 2013-14, representing 47 national unions of students in 39 countries.