Students need to be heard on European Education Area

The European Commission recently presented a proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation and a Commission Communication on a European Strategy for Universities. The European Students’ Union (ESU) welcomes this new focus on higher education which promotes the synergy between the European Union-based European Education Area (EEA) and the broader European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

As outlined in the Student Manifesto on the Future of Higher Education in Europe, the “future of higher education lies in an integrated European Higher Education Area, where fundamental values, automatic recognition of degrees, upward convergence of student rights and democratic and effective student representation on all levels (from local to European and transnational) are practised”.

The EEA can play a major role in further implementing the EHEA policies and in allowing policy experimentation while retaining the EHEA as the main policy-setting forum for higher education in Europe.

Advancing the transnational dimension of higher education

The European Commission proposes the establishment, by mid-2024, of a legal statute for alliances of higher education institutions, of a joint European degree, based on common criteria, the development of joint educational activities, including joint student enrolment, and a revision of the Council Recommendation to further develop a European Quality Assurance and Recognition System.

We welcome that the measures proposed in the Council Recommendation are available for all the alliances of higher education institutions, not just European Universities. These should also be open to the non-EU higher education institutions involved in the alliances as associated partners.

Differences in tuition fees, numerus clausus (which limits the number of students allowed at a university) and student welfare remain major obstacles to integration. Furthermore, many national higher education systems are underfunded.

The announced development of an investment pathway combining local, national and European funds is an important step towards the financial sustainability of the alliances. However, without robust investments in the whole system, the alliances could resort to increasing tuition fees or acquiring substantial private investments to support their work. This might widen the gap between them and the other higher education institutions.

In line with the new focus on inclusivity in the European Strategy for Universities, ESU proposes the thorough implementation of the Principles and Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the EHEA in national legislations and the creation of a European Student Rights Charter, laying out the minimum set of rights that should be secured for students in the EU.

The goal is to achieve upward convergence of student conditions and rights, both within higher education institutions belonging to the same alliance and between national higher education systems.

In line with the requirement of student involvement within the alliances, ESU proposes that all of them establish a democratically elected, representative student council, with solid, direct representation on the highest decision-making body of the alliance.

Enhancing mobility for all

Both documents focus on achieving the conditions for the seamless mobility of students and staff. To this end, the Commission presented the European Student Card and the unique European Student Identifier to be given to all mobile students in 2022 and to all the other students by mid-2024.

ESU welcomes the announcement that the European Student Card will enhance and not substitute the current ones issued by higher education institutions and student unions and stresses that it should give mobile students access to the same services as home students.

However, the Commission affirmed that the future of mobility lies in ‘hybrid solutions’, and has already put blended and physical mobility under the same heading in the last Erasmus+ Programme Guide.

ESU recalls that the Council Conclusions on the European Universities Initiative decided that physical mobility must remain the core format.

ESU and the Erasmus Student Network published a joint paper on the role that blended mobilities and virtual exchanges could play. They can be useful to promote physical mobilities at a later stage of a student’s career, but cannot be an obstacle to the increase in inclusiveness and funding of physical mobility.

In order to make the Erasmus programme truly inclusive and stable over the next few years, the amount of funds should increase without dramatic drops between two Multiannual Financial Framework cycles and grants should cover the actual costs of living and studying in the host city.

Supporting fundamental values in European HE

ESU welcomes the renewed focus on academic freedom. The Bologna Follow-Up Group is working on common definitions and indicators for EHEA fundamental values, to be approved at the next Ministerial Conference in 2024.

Thus, the Commission’s commitment to proposing guiding principles on protecting fundamental academic values in 2024 should give enforceability within the EU to those EHEA definitions and indicators.

The announced guidelines for hosting researchers at risk and the encouragement to set up national programmes for refugee students are a welcome development towards the establishment of a European scholars and students at risk scholarship scheme, based on a common framework for national programmes and co-funded by the EU.

European Education Area must involve stakeholders

The Bologna Process has shown that stakeholders’ involvement is crucial to shaping successful policies in higher education: the thorough design and implementation of EEA policies (including the proposed European Higher Education Sector Scoreboard) needs student involvement to succeed.

However, as we previously noted, little space is given to stakeholders in the EEA governance, limiting their role to technical bodies and excluding them from the High-Level Group on Education and Training. This risks hindering the success of the EEA.

ESU calls for a revision of the system: higher education stakeholders, including students, must be represented within the High-Level Group and students must be involved at the national level in shaping the governments’ positions on EEA issues and in designing and implementing higher education reforms.

Jakub Grodecki is the vice-president of the European Students’ Union. Matteo Vespa is a member of the executive committee of the European Students’ Union.