Students should be consulted on the future of education

When European leaders gathered in Gothenburg to applaud the European Pillar of Social Rights and think blue-sky thoughts about the future of Europe on 17 November, the European Commission and European leaders came prepared with a surprise: potential reforms in education policies.

Stronger European leadership and more ambitious policies run like a red thread through the commission’s Strengthening European Identity through Education and Culture document.

The European Students’ Union, or ESU, welcomed that the European Commission recognises higher education as a necessary ingredient in the creation of a more inclusive and united Europe, but introducing sudden changes without proper consultation of key stakeholders is something we cannot support.

Students need to be included in discussions that shape their education if we want to have an inclusive and democratic system that takes into account specific needs, especially of vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Maybe the biggest surprise was the proposed establishment of a new “Sorbonne process”. Building on the transnational Bologna Process, its main focus is to have “mutual recognition of higher education and school-leaving diplomas and to facilitate cross-border validation of training and lifelong learning certificates”.

What has happened to Bologna?

It seems to us that the commission has given up on the Bologna Process. They rightfully point out that the non-binding agreement has not achieved its targets. Nonetheless, the next European Higher Education Area ministerial meeting in Paris is nearly upon us and we have not heard any Bologna countries calling for legal tools like the one the European Union now proposes.

The commission ambitiously states that it wants to see 7.5% of European students taking part in the Erasmus+ programme during their studies. In order to get to this point, a substantial increase in funding is proposed. No less than €29.4 billion (US$35 billion) is to be allocated to this initiative if there is enough will among member states.

The introduction of a European student card is meant to ease the bureaucratic burden.

The ESU encourages substantial investment in Erasmus+. We recommend ensuring easy access to grants that are sufficient to cover the costs associated with studying abroad. This way, students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be able to fully enjoy mobility, rather than it being the preserve of a small, rather homogenous group of students, as it is now. Involving students in the allocation of resources will be key to making this a reality.

Moreover, we cannot support the idea of an EU student card, even if it reduces red tape, if student unions are not involved in the process. Existing cards play an important role in accessing student ecosystems.

European universities?

The commission proposes the creation of a European Network of Universities, which, as ESU reads it, will lead to the establishment of new institutions at a European level. Schools for European and Transnational Governance have to be accessible for people from any part of the EU and they have to be established in all regions to ensure possibilities for all citizens to be involved in their governance.

While university cooperation can indeed build a stronger European identity, questions arise around whether new universities have to be established or whether it would be better to invest in existing ones instead. We advise looking beyond excellent institutions and ensuring high quality education for all students if we are to tackle inequality.

Expectations of increased funding underpin the new strategy, but this is where we see the lowest level of ambition. Funding benchmarks are set at 5% of a country’s gross domestic product or GDP. On average, EU countries are pushing against this benchmark already and for many this will be a lot lower than the current reality.

“Encouraging diversified income sources” is proposed as the way to arrive at this 5% figure.

Diversification of income sources has become a buzz-phrase both globally and in Europe. At first glance one gets the impression that this is fine, but many students have woken up to harsh reality when tuition fees have been chosen as a new income source.

We strongly discourage this approach. Countries need to acknowledge that higher education is a public good and take responsibility to make sure that it is free and accessible for all.

Helge Schwitters is president of the European Students’ Union.