Challenges require a shift in student representation

The multiple crises hitting Europe and the world bring about opportunities to introduce long-awaited measures.

The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting our communities dramatically, exacerbating old inequalities and revealing those that were hidden from public view.

The human rights situation is worsening in many countries. For instance, in Belarus, after the contested 2020 presidential elections, the government has been violating human rights on an unprecedented scale, with specific pressure on teachers and academics, which has led the European Union to sanction four university leaders due to their role in cracking down on dissent in their institutions.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover triggered a severe humanitarian crisis and has brought uncertainty about the fate of women’s rights and their access to education.

However, these multiple crises are triggering counter-measures that were unthinkable in the recent past.

Next Generation EU is the single biggest investment policy in the history of the European Community. The introduction of the annual EU Rule of Law reports and respect for the Rule of Law as a precondition for EU funds give the block a powerful tool to check the state of democracy within the Union.

At the higher education level, the ministers of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) agreed on a common definition of academic freedom and on common principles and guidelines to make higher education systems more inclusive.

The establishment of the European Universities Initiative and the pledge by the EU to create its own European Education Area create new dimensions for the integration of higher education systems.

The European Union and some member states have launched a programme of scholarships for Belarusian students at risk of repression and the Italian government has announced the opening of humanitarian corridors for 1,200 Afghan citizens over the next two years.

Furthermore, the Conference on the Future of Europe brings about the opportunity to rethink the future of the EU, its role in the world and its purpose for its citizens.

Fundamental values: practise what you preach

In light of this, clear directions for further work have emerged. We need to continue defining the fundamental values of the EHEA (academic integrity, institutional autonomy, participation of students and staff in higher education governance and public responsibility for and of higher education) and provide a transparent monitoring system for them and academic freedom.

This is the task of the Bologna Follow-Up Group’s Working Group on Fundamental Values which, over the next two years, will gather together experts, stakeholders and communities to set up a comprehensive, holistic monitoring framework, with a clear set of indicators for each value.

The European Students’ Union (ESU) will provide its contribution through a project, funded by the Open Society Foundations, which will gather students’ views on academic freedom and help build the capacity of local student communities.

Within the EU, we have the possibility to act now on academic freedom by including it as one of the assessment criteria within the annual Rule of Law report.

It is clearer than ever that we need a coordinated European approach to support scholars and students at risk. While single initiatives for teachers are coordinated at the European level (the Inspireurope project) and others for students exist in some countries (for instance, Norway and Germany), there is still a lack of a pan-European scheme of fellowships for teachers and of scholarships for students at risk.

This has recently been recommended by the ESU, the European University Association and Scholars At Risk; it is the theme of a high-level event organised by the German and Polish academic exchange services and the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills; and it is one of the main proposals of the European Youth Event to be brought to the plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Call for a new era for student rights

When it comes to the future of higher education in Europe, the Bologna pledge on the social dimension, Next Generation EU and the prospective European Education Area (EEA) need to open a new era for student rights. We need to invest at least 10% of the Next Generation EU funds in education, as the European Parliament has proposed.

The barriers to transnational cooperation within European universities need to be addressed through a process of integration of higher education systems which also maintains the right of institutions and national systems to tailor their offer to the needs and specificities of their communities and societies.

We need to achieve automatic recognition of degrees, based on the Bologna tools; we need an upward convergence of student rights, through a European Student Rights Charter and the implementation of the principles and guidelines of the social dimension at a national level; and we need democratic, effective student representation to be the norm across the continent, from the local to the EEA level, including in the governance bodies of European universities.

The time to discuss the future of education in Europe is now: that is why the ESU and its Romanian union ANOSR are organising a pan-European event under the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe on 22 November.

It will be the final of a series of initiatives organised by ESU national unions in different countries and it will gather European, national and local student activists and general students together to have a dialogue with key policy-makers and develop their proposals for the future of education on the continent.

Challenging times bring about paradigm shifts: students are ready to seize them.

Matteo Vespa is a member of the executive committee of the European Students’ Union (ESU). He represents ESU within the Bologna Follow-Up Group’s Working Group on Fundamental Values, as well as within the Scholars At Risk International Advisory Committee and the Scholars At Risk European Coordinating Committee for Academic Freedom Advocacy.